Saturday, January 28, 2012

The Space In Between Is the Place: The Music of Devo and The B-52s (Fragment Four May Not Actually Be a Fragment)


The blues and blacks dominating the cover art don't deceive.  This is a darker Devo, ever more bitter with the world and less willing to make lighthearted fun of it.  Utopian Boy Scouts in JFK pomps ready to seduce their female counterparts for their cookies.

"Through Being Cool"--Right outta the gate they're beating some poor schmuck over the gourd with a waffle iron.  Least they had the decency to throw a pillowcase over his head.  Harsh, but they're just following the NuTra blueprint.  Which is actually red and brown.  Oh well, we do live in a world with such a thing as scented deodorant.

Of course Devo's song about how they are so misunderstood was misunderstood.  The "cool" refers not to hipness, but disposition.  Although the vocal delivery comes off with phlegmatical as a military march chant, the lyrics advocate death to the "ninnies and twits."  

Smart versus dumb, rabid curiosity versus satisfied ignorance, who will win?  Neither. One needs the other to survive.  Spice of life, when sensibly applied.  The only thing more bone-chilling than a world where all copies of 100 Years of Solitude are destroyed…is a world where 100 Years of Solitude is compulsory reading.

"Jerkin' Back and Forth"--Another club-ready, not-about-masturbation platter, coming with two sides of vocal.  This is some toe-tappin' emotional squalor right here.

"Pity You"--Toni Basil, years later, would cover this song as "You Got a Problem."  Years prior, she covered Jerry Casale.  Hi-o.    And I'm out.

"Soft Things"--We're back!

Just in time too.    Jerry tones down his tendencies towards statue-ness here, and actually sings a bit, to fine effect.  The lyric-writing process musta been fun.

"Okay guys, guys.  I need some words that end in '-otic.'  I already have 'chaotic.'"  Well done, but I'm disappointed rhotic, psychotic and kairotic didn't make the cut.  

Although "Soft Things" is a clear celebration of the magnificent female form, Jerry still takes pains to mention the woman's mind.  In fact, he is well aware that the undulating woman is in control mentally as well as physically, rendering him a pop-eyed, slack-jawed, ineffectual bone-sack.

"Going Under"--Lovers not-yet-so meet at the arcade, right by Berserk.  Evil Otto watches the humanoids fall in love.  His sinister smile does not fade, knowing as he does a thing or two about overwhelmed hearts.

"Race of Doom"--It's funny how mechanical and non-thrilled the fellas sound whilst reciting the title.  Thankfully, the sonic lava bed is plenty engaged and engaging.  This is music made to drop kick walls to.  

Jerry sounds so goddamn removed.  He's like Krang, a head in a microwave.  I really don't wanna be his time bomb.  I just wanna dance.

"Love Without Anger"--The fundamental message I get behind.    "Love without anger isn't love at all."  You need a healthy dose of both in a relationship, because no emotion should be off limits.  This isn't to endorse the violence frequently borne of anger; that's not love.  But neither is emotional compromise for fear of the occasional screaming match.  Those are actually pretty good for you.  Get the blood circulating, get some color in your cheeks.  Besides, making up afterwards is the fun bit.  That's where Bob1 steps in.

While Mark has the lead here, it's Jerry (resident Devo cat-dog) that I've always associated most strongly with the track.  "Are you kidding me?"  Oh he's taking from his real life right there.  

"The Super Thing"--What a neatly programmed little drum pattern.  Shame it would only be used the once.

More will to power with Professor Casale.  I bet he read aloud those interminable speeches in Atlas Shrugged as vocal exercise.   Ostentatious, but brilliant.  Also, Bob1's guitar solo is the number two.  He ain't down yet, no matter how much fire the double-headed dragon huffs in his direction.

"Beautiful World"--That T-mobile commercial where the guy mishears the lyrics to "Pour Some Sugar On Me" always pissed me off.  "You don't have to understand music to enjoy it," the voice over informed us.  Suck a dick twice over.  Maybe you don't need to WRITE SONG-BY-SONG REVIEWS to show how good music makes you feel, but you should at the very least know the correct title of the song you are listening to.  (T-mobile lunknuts didn't even know that!)  Otherwise music is no greater or more profound a factor in your life than the toothpaste you use.  It's not a catalyst for change, it's another bit of background noise.

Anyone who listens to "Beautiful World" and doesn't catch the cynicism probably watched the "To Serve Man" episode of The Twilight Zone and thought those aliens were so nice cooking for the humans like that.  Such is the mouth-dropping cluelessness that Target ad campaigns are made of.

"Beautiful World" is no "Whip It"--it's superior.  The hook is a petulant synth, statue Jerry has just been rubbed down to a gleam.  You can't write or sing a song like this without having your sense of justice shaken, your heart broken, or your instincts correct.  The lyrical twist makes me mad because it's true, and you can't refute it.  This isn't a beautiful world.  There are beautiful people, places, and things.  Yes.  Of course.  But for every friend is a thoughtless stranger, for every staggering work of art a monolith of corporate greed, and for every Prius a Scion.  

That said…it's all we have.  Spuds don't quit.  That's what the twits want, for the disillusionment to overwhelm us.  I will never bring joy to the life of a twit.  I hate those whores and shan't quite mashing them.

"Enough Said"--Video game time!  The introduction is just pixel dust, man. Inconsequential lyrics and a weak finish for a damn solid record.  Angry Devo is good Devo.  


The B-52s, on the other paw, were too busy updating their sound to be too peeved.  Keith Strickland was growing increasingly disinterested in sitting behind a drum kit and POUNDBOOMCRASH, so he and Ricky Wilson vowed to take the band in a different direction, one closer to the current trend de-emphasizing the guitar and placing the sonic onus on those impersonal yet tempting synthesizers.  

Cover art by William Wegman.  No doubt some fans thought that dog was sniffing up the left-over PCP.  

"Legal Tender"--Robert Waldrop again drops some words off, this time in celebration of counterfeiting money.  It's easy and no one gets hurt, just richer--that's the B-52s way.  This song was and is huge in Brazil.  Not as much as football, but certainly more than The Simpsons.

The robot beats and whining key hooks do not try and fool you.  This is the new sound, and you're on board or jumping over the railing and Wegman-paddling to shore.  The repetition is so eighties baby, but Kate and Cindy's combined vocal chops take it all the way to the future.  

"Whammy Kiss"--Dim the lights…hit the play button…Ortega!  Get the acid!  Sloppy, I said sloppy, and I would miss the whole point if I demanded more from this band than "I need a refuelin' I need your kiss/Come on now and plant it on my lips."

Ricky made it clear at the end of "Legal Tender" that adaptation was not decay, and he's even more a presence here, chopping and slashing into the romantic array of stars.  Fred's so damn pushy though, even about something so sublimely simple.  "When I get home!  When! I! Get! Home!"  Damn!  You can mush up with the couch cushions, that's gonna be yer attitude, pal.

"Song For a Future Generation"--My favorite B-52s song of all-time.  Not their best, that would be "Private Idaho."  Unlike that space-punk classic, "Future Generation" is built to spill over onto your circuit breaker and wait around for your reaction.  Some people still can't make it all the way through without vomiting up things they haven't recently eaten.  Still others consider it a feel-good classic, a zany cosmic gift barely-fit for us silly earthlings but it was marked for us, so save the box!

I am of the second group.  I am President of the second group, actually.  Empress King Queen President, fully.

All five members of the group take turns at the mic, 'cause future generations have to know who exactly these people were.  It's a fabulous concept that proves, even if the B's were moving further away from the sound that put them on the map, their goofy, sweet spirit was still there, still an inspiration.

It was funny as a kid listening to Whammy! on my brother's cassette, trying to make out every word they were saying (took years, literally, to figure out Keith's).  It's probably even more amusing that as an adult I actually have ranked the members introductions.

5.  (Fourth in the song) "Hey, I'm Kate and I am a Taurus/I love tomatoes and black-capped Chickadees."  That's cute.  But I always thought Cindy would be more rip-roarin' to hang with, and this kinda bears me out.  "Loooove" tomatoes?  Really?  They're very basic, you know.  I love pizza, which utilizes the tomato. Tomato juice, sure.  

4.  (Fifth in the song)"Hey, my name is Keith and I'm a Scorpio from Athens, G-A and I like to find the essence from within."  He runs it all together with no variety in intonation, and also a bit vague.  No wonder I couldn't suss it out as a kid, "the essence from within" is not something a kid can even begin to comprehend.  Nowadays?  I'd totally love to chop it up with Keith.  He knows we are not alone.

3.  (First in the song) "Hey, I'm Fred the Cancerian from New Jersey/I like collecting records and exploring the cave of the unknown."  Fred Schneider is so goddamn Southern-fried kitschballs it's easy to forget he's from New Jersey.  I wish it was as easy to forget New Jersey.  

2.  (Second in the song) "Hello, I'm Cindy, I'm a Pisces/And I like chihuahuas and Chinese noodles."  Cindy is from Georgia.  Oh my God is she from Georgia.  The best delivery of all the B's here, definitely.  Cracks my shit up consistently.  And what great taste!

1.  (Third in the song)  "Hi, my name is Ricky and I'm a Pisces/I love computers and hot tamales."  There's the novelty of hearing the voice of the late genius…the staccato laugh before his part, coming out of the key solo…the fact he loves computers in 1983.  One year before the first Macintosh came out.

The absurdist desires cover the gamut--they want to be everything, fit into every role, try them on like crazy outfits or wigs, from one to the next, and so on, regardless of social expectation based on gender, age or economic class.  (The insistent refrain "Let's meet and have a baby now!" could be understood as a piss-take of heterosexual idealism coming from this band, which is another check in its column.)

"Song For a Future Generation" always makes me smile, and if it doesn't work the same wonder on you…well..then…well we're gonna keep looking and listening, 'cause I feel like smiling to some music with you.  How 'bout that.  

"Butterbean"--How 'bout this? 

Abandon decorum, all ye who enter here.  This is a metaphor for nothing, the subject is actually the butterbean.  While that particular legume is disgusting to my palate, this track helps me forget that fact for a few minutes.  Mind you, there are a hundred other foods from the American South to extol in song.  Barbecued ribs, anyone?  Don't eat meat?  Cornbread!  

People down South get the shittiest of raps, but they enjoy eating, drinking, fucking and telling stories like nobody's business. 

"Trism"--Music writer Rob Sheffield once marveled in a Rolling Stone column how utterly free of any flaw the first "side" of Whammy! is, and damn if that ain't just the truth plain as. It's not like "Trism" signifies the beginning of the end of the fun.  It's just…it's funny how we have a song about atmospheric travel but the song about beans was more transcendent.  Just sayin'.  Fred Schneider's so white when he passes through a prism, more prisms come out.

"Queen of Las Vegas"--By the numbers, and none of them in the sequence presented will win you the Lotto.  

"Moon 83"--This was the spot occupied by their cover of "Don't Worry Kyoto" by hero Yoko Ono if you acquired a first-pressing.  I didn't, so I have to remain true to how I heard the record.  

A modern remake of "There's a Moon In the Sky" from the debut record, which is both unnecessary and mediocre.  

"Big Bird"--The other BB song already filled the goofy quota.  There's still some of it on the floor, actually.  Stop wasting my time.

"Work That Skirt"--I'm feeling like Whammy! would have been the greatest EP ever, but back-to-back short-players wouldn't have been a great look for the band.  A tolerable surf-space instrumental.  

What makes the second side hurt, like way beyond just being displeased with the lack of passion and innovation, is that Ricky Wilson's guitar is barely a factor.  When the songs are as applesauce as those on the first side, the pill goes down easier.  But given what would happen by the time the next B-52s album was finished makes their insistence on innovation bitter going down.

1 comment:

  1. For some reason BOTS sounds more dated to me than WHAMMY!
    I always liked this effort. To me, it almost plays like an album for children. Full of simple beats, hand clapping,la la las and do do dos.