Tuesday, February 28, 2012
The Space In Between Is the Place: The Music of Devo and The B-52's (Fragment Nine Means Our Journey Is At Its End. So Long And Thanks For All the New Wave)
Pitchfork gave this a 6.6.
Whereas Cosmic Thing was a comeback from a devastating loss suffered several years prior, Funplex was a comeback from a crappy album unfit for man or beast released sixteen years ago. Is it an improvement? Yah. Is the band still terminally incapable of making a decent album cover? Yah. Where's the coked-out dog Whammy! dog when you need him?
The impetus for a new album was the band's desire to play some new material during one of their many many live performances. They weren't satisfied being a "hits" band you go see for some reliable diversion, and I admire that in any artist. When Keith Strickland heard New Order's Get Ready, he was sufficiently moved to contact the producer, Steve Osbourne, and offer a spot behind the boards. Osbourne accepted, and the result was Funplex, the tightest B's album eva.
And, yes...welcome back, Cindy Wilson! Your body language speaks for so many of us, honey.
"Pump"--Like Devo, the B-52s (superflous apostrophe dismissed, you will note) had stayed in the hearts, minds and wallets of fans by remaining a steadfast presence on the concert circuit. "Pump" not only kicks off Funplex, if you go and see the B's these days, it will likely kick off their live set. First heard (seen?) on The L-Word, "Pump" is appropriately club-prepped, with drums that echo off your chest wall, but the vocals lack the unique qualities long-time fans can reasonably expect.
The lyrics, yeah, I don't, pfffft. Peanut butter on naan bread makes more sense.
"Hot Corner"--Sexy as Brooks Robinson.
"Ultraviolet"--"Spread your seed on fertile ground." Okay band, you know what? I won't be doing that. I would like to do Kate's fantastic "Wooo!" at 1:12. Aw, the B-52s can still make me smile.
Fred exclaims his little cadre of freaks should "hit the G-Spot," and that was just deliriously hilarious to my silly little brain till I sussed out he was talking about a club. I wonder if said establishment is equally as annoying for people to locate. You know, the accessibility of the G-Spot, indeed the very question of the said spot's existence, is a serious issue facing America today. Such a controversial, relevant subject calls for a panel. Of five men. Some of whom are pastors. Yes.
"Juliet of the Spirits"--Fellini's domestic drama inspires an iridiscent gem forty-odd years after its release. That's what art does.
Juliet is in song as on screen, a once-stifled housewife now in blossom, freeing herself of fear, and allowing herself to dream clear as crystal vines twisting around thick white stone pillars. 'Cause clutter is declasse.
If I'm talking crystal, you know this is yet another inimitable Kate and Cindy extravaganza. It's four-and-a-half minutes long, and wouldn't have been hurt at all if it had decided to soar a little longer. But, it knew when it needed to land.
"Funplex"--The first single, and easily recognizable as a B-52s song, which not all of these tracks are. Circular riffage and silly-ass chorus. The overall tautness of "Funplex"--both of them-mighta thrown some folks accustomed to shambolic party-rock, but not far enough that they couldn't get back up and dance.
Fred and the gals play three distinct characters connected by mall culture. It's inconsequential and fun as hell.
"Eyes Wide Open"--This, on the other paw, is detail-deficient and bland. Cornball imagery can sometimes be salvaged by a not-shabby intergalactic soundscape...but not here.
"Love in the Year 3000"--The very possibility, no matter how remote, that this may have been somewhat inspired by an old Conan O'Brien bit is enough to keep me from hating it. But believe me, no Nebraskan field is as corny as this song. "Robots, bootybots, erotobots"? Er.
"Deviant Ingredient"--Which is probably also Fred's email. The lyrics reference "delirious experience," and oh it is. Nirvana not quite achieved, but my fingertips at least brushed against it.
"Too Much To Think About"--Typically not a problem with the B-52s! I didn't intend that as a slight, either. It's nice to have records that you can slap on and never have to worry about that one song that will likely send you scampering into the bathroom for a good, semi-cathartic crying jag.
"Dancing Now"--Caterpillar New Wave, this. Non-intrusive enough to argue politics over.
"Keep This Party Going"--Appeared in a Season 2 episode of True Blood (produced by Alan Ball, a gay man from Georgia, I mean really now y'all). Lafayette would love the shit outta Funplex.
Dirty glasses runneth over with cheap beer the hue of infection-indicating urine are all over this song. Just like with "Cosmic Thing," the B's are all about taking this shindig to the capital. "Things are gettin' dirty down in Washington." (I often wonder how successful the Occupy movement would have been if motherfuckers had just started dancing with their signs. How's a cop gonna pepper-spray somebody doing the cabbage patch?)
Fred Schneider announced in 2011 that Funplex would be the B-52s' last studio album, but more recently has retracted this statement. Indefatigable, thy name is the B-52s.
SOMETHING FOR EVERYBODY
Devo took a well-deserved break after the unmitigated horror of 1990's Smooth Noodle Maps. They had been recording and touring, after all, for a dozen years, and the last half of that period sucked, so a hiatus was in order certainly.
Mark and the Bobs took their sick creative minds to Mutato Muzika, a music production company started by Mark the year before Smooth Noodle Maps was named as a registered sex offender in every state in America. Scoring films (e.g. Rushmore, Happy Gilmore) and television (Rugrats perhaps most famously; Pee Wee's Playhouse most fabulously) left little time for tending the potato garden. And anyway, isn't it all just another slumping body on the devolutionary chart?
Jerry Casale, I imagine, continued to fuck at a Dubersteinian pace. He wasn't starved for creative release, either, directing videos for bands like Soundgarden and Rush.
It was inevitable that Devo would reunite. The idea and the band that sprung from that idea are simply too singularly amazing to keep dormant for too long a period. In 1995, they reconvened to re-record "Girl U Want" for the Tank Girl soundtrack. January 1996, they played at the Sundance Film Festival in Utah. A well-received Lollapalooza run followed. From 1997 to 2009, Devo would operate--albeit erratically--as a live machine. But no new music seemed imminent. (Which irked Jerry especially; interview after interview, dude got asked if and when some new Devo would make its way into the world, and he would invariably point the finger at Mark for holding up the flight.)
Finally, twenty years after what many feared would be their departing sonic debacle, Ohio's finest announced an album of all-new material. They named it Something For Everybody, but it was hard for me then to imagine the guys making an exoteric album, as it always seemed Devo were born for the niche of "best kept secret," even when they slipped into the platinum pit that one time. That said, Devo is most assuredly a band that is also a brand, distinguishable and distinguished, and they took it right to the people with this one--well, in their way. Satirical focus group videos popped up on YouTube, SXSW panels were held, and most intriguingly, a "Song Study" was announced. This was an interactive online asking participants to listen to snippets of sixteen songs the band had recorded, and to cast votes for their twelve favorites. The most popular dozen tracks would comprise the forthcoming album. (40,000 spuds answered the call. Duty now.)
The very impetus for the record ended up not making the final product, but I'm getting ahead of myself here. Right now, let's examine Devo's comeback...retail version.
"Fresh"--Performed at the 2010 Olympic festivities, where the fellas got to show off their new blue energy domes (the dress du jour along with, alternately, the intentionally half-realized "Everybody Face masks") and more importantly, a new song. Lyrics and music aside, "Fresh" is hopeful just by dint of not sucking hard enough to dislodge a wrench that's been buried in mud. There's guitar, first of all. That's enough right there to let us know that pancakes are for dinner too.
Not a return to form, 'cause Devo were/are/ever amorphous, but this is high-quality rock n' roll.
"What We Do"--Then this happens. Shout all over again. Brain-dead all-around. This cannot be what Devo does. If it is, then de-evolution has hit them harder than they think.
"Please Baby Please"--Written by the Bros. Casale, which I believe is a first, "Please Baby Please" is New Traditionalists in a blender that breaks two seconds after you hit the "Start" button. Flubberous blabber, this.
"Don't Shoot (I'm a Man)"--This could have gone very noodly, but they reined it in pretty good pretty quick. Then that stupid repetition of "Don't taze me, bro" ends it all. Why not just sample said semi-classic soundbite and play it over and over? Woulda sounded less desperate for forced relevance that way.
"Mind Games"--Women play mind games with devious relish 'cause if and when we try to engage in the physical games, we kinda sorta get pulverized. The rules are there, and if you want to bitch about them fine, I sure do, but it comes down to--you either complain and change, or you just complain. Take your side and proceed accordingly.
"Human Rocket"--Mark can be quite inspired lyrically when he cares enough; "Human Rocket" is definitely no "Speed Racer." He rides the swelling itching sound wave with impressive panache. The terrorism of everyday life is the subject, and the outcome is sadly predictable.
"Sumthin'"--I am a querulous fan, at times. With songs such as this, it ain't hard to figure why. "Sumthin'" should go die on the side of the road. Whatever it is.
"Step Up"--Says nothing about even less than that. Nothing here to taste or chew, mouth your mouth along. Devo, damnit, you had me going there for a minute.
"Cameo"--I would like to say Devo never plumbed the depths of Total Devo once on Something For Everybody, but here comes Cameo to prove me wrong. I didn't use quotation marks, 'cause Cameo is actually a person, a dude, a Native American with Elvis hair who kills white people. "Cameo" is also a song, an abomination, and it makes me want to rip out my hair and kill people, free of prejudice.
I am far from alone in not liking "Cameo." It was not selected by the fans for inclusion on the record, yet Devo used the veto power guaranteed them by the Doctrine of Bob and put it on the album anyway, explaining "It is is the new Devo and will prevail in the end." Don't brainwash me, bros. That is not what I want to hear. Change is inevitable, change is necessary, yes. But there is the type of change that furthers and galvanizes legacies, and then there is the type of change that stunts and tarnishes legacies. Devo came to the spork in the road, and started digging a hole.
"Later Is Now"--Final Fantasy and Castlevania meet my hippocampus and the collective decision is reached to grab a sandwich, maybe some chips. Each second is savored , 'cause everyone knows how fragile the peace truly is.
"No Place Like Home"--Didn't make the cut either, and Jerry took vocal umbrage: "They don't want to see Devo being real," he huffed, referring to the fans. Personally, I like "No Place." It wouldn't be an ideneous fit for a Devo album thirty years ago, but that was then. This? Is not then. This is this.
There's a plaintive quality here missing from most Devo tunes, and while musically it's not stunning, and while yes there are bromides a-poppin' in the verses--Jerry really makes it work. He usually comes off relentlessly cynical, but remember, a cynic is a disillusioned romantic, so when pressed those folks can conjure up a soup equal parts sweet and sour.
In one promo interview, Jerry elaborated: "I don't like people who do things in a spiritless way....If you're going to bother doing it, try to do a really good job. Concentrate, and be there, and try to really be good at what you do." If those words come off hokey to you, they don't to me, but I guess that's the hillbilly in my soul. Jerry's unleashing some mother wit right there. Although I admittedly find the majority of Something For Everybody dire at worst and unrealized at best...I don't doubt their conviction. Maybe with Shout and Total Devo I did have my suspicions about their collective passion, but not here.
"March On"--I love that Devo asked for fan opinion and then still did whatever they wanted to anyway. Any Devo-tee worth their peeling skin had to know that would be the outcome, so how could anyone be surprised or upset? But in the case of "March On," just like with "Cameo," the band should have heard our anguished cries. 'Cause this is terrible. It was "undervalued in the study" because the song itself is underfed and underwhelming. "No Place Like Home" would have been a strong closer for a weak album.
There was, of course, a Song Survey version released; MP3 only, via online retailers. It is there we get to the heart of Devo's recorded return.
In 2007, Dell asked Devo if they could feature "Whip It" in a commercial. Sick of companies asking for the same song over and over, Devo replied, "Hey, how about a new song?"
Dell was gobsmacked. "Y-you have a new song?"
Devo recorded a handful of new tracks, and Dell selected "Watch Us Work It." I dunno how many computers it ended up selling for the company, but it is absolutely successful as a fucking stand-alone song, the best Devo has done since "Explosions" in 1983. Driven by a percussion track jacked wholesale from "The Super Thing" (one of my favorites from New Traditionalists) and a nasty boot-lick, it is a testament to the above-average intelligence and good taste of the fanbase that "Watch Us Work It" was deemed album-worthy.
But...Devo said no go. And when you think on it, their decision makes a certain artistic sense. By 2010, when the album was released, the song was three years old. It had nationwide exposure. It was out there, known, it was possibly old dome. It went against the Devo ethos in that way and thus, had to be shunted aside. (Also, lest we forget, "Cameo" now for the future, and all that garbage.) So why did they even put it up for consideration on the song survey? 'Cause they're dicks!
The other two tracks picked by the fans were "Signal Ready" and "Let's Get To It." Both of which harken back to the more fun and natural spirit of Devo and of course they were doomed.
But there's more! A third version of Something For Everybody was released, a Deluxe edition that included all sixteen songs. And all that showed anybody is no one--not the band, not the fans--no one fucking liked "Knock Boots."
Pitchfork gave this album a 6.6.