Monday, April 14, 2008

Back To My Youth

The B-52s – Funplex
Was (Not Was) – Boo!

What on earth is going on here? Two of the most memorable singles of my childhood years were ‘Walk The Dinosaur’ by Was (Not Was) and ‘Love Shack’ by the B-52s. Not much has been heard of either band since the early nineties. I remember Simon Mayo hammering the latter to death on his Radio 1 breakfast show, thus guaranteeing it would be played pretty much every morning for a month during the short journey from home to my primary school. Some 18 years after this song was released, and 15 years since their last album, The B-52s have returned once more, this time styled in black and white rather than dayglo bright colours.

Other than that, as plenty of critics have stupidly bemoaned, not that much has changed. Even at quite an advanced age, they are still ‘pleasure seekers’, ‘lookin’ for some action’ and promoting a guilt-free philosophy of unrestrained hedonism. Well, good for them! Keith Strickland remains a superb rhythm guitarist and much of the band’s appeal still rests on the contrast between Fred Schneider’s high camp goofball interjections (‘there’s a rest stop – let’s hit the G Spot!’ etc) and the infectious melodies and harmonies carried by a now reunited Kate Pierson and Cindy Wilson. This is all lightweight fluff of course – but who could resist such a tempting manifesto? When they promise to ‘take this party to the White House lawn’ at the album’s conclusion, I can’t help suspecting this least political of groups could still teach the Bush administration a thing or two.

It’s also unfair to suggest there have been no developments. Producer Steve Osborne has cautiously but effectively modernised their sound. Perhaps the most notable factor in this is the way the group have incorporated some ideas from bands they themselves once influenced. The emphasis on straightforward four to the floor disco backbeats is redolent of CSS or LCD Soundsystem, both of whom took on board much of the basic energy of early B-52s material. It’s interesting then that the CSS remix of the title track does not actually sound all that far removed from the album version. It’s both surprising and endearing to hear how suddenly fashionable a track like ‘Eyes Wide Open’ now sounds – with its precise hi-hat rhythm, scratchy, muted guitars and exuberant cowbells. Hearing Pierson and Wilson bellow ‘I don’t wanna crash! I don’t wanna rehash the past!’, it would be easy to be fooled into thinking this was something new, when really all it represents is an excellent band remembering what made them great in the first place.

It’s therefore worth recognising that ‘Funplex’, whilst unashamedly one-dimensional, is a good deal more consistent than either ‘Cosmic Thing’ or ‘Good Stuff’. Both those albums had great moments but sometimes veered into inconsequentiality with meandering melodies. By contrast, pretty much every track here is outrageously enjoyable, and at the very least pleasantly hummable. These are pop songs of course – it’s silly and ultimately banal, but for three or four minutes, it completely elevates the spirits in a way that no other form of music can. Even the band’s attempts at sounding more sophisticated somehow work in spite of themselves. ‘Juliet of the Spirits’ is more pristine, but also sugary and mesmerising.

Personally, I can’t resist Fred Schneider’s ‘spandex, spiral vortex’ on ‘Love in the Year 3000’ or the sheer energy and excitement of tracks like ‘Hot Corner’ or ‘Pump’. I certainly can’t resist the bizarre moment in the middle of ‘Deviant Ingredient’ when ‘the sensualists’ arrive (by pink helicopter, how else?), and Fred Schneider suddenly announces, without even a hint of shame: ‘I am now an eroticist - a fully eroticised being!’

Those critics who have found this album embarrassing have maybe just forgotten how to have fun. This is an album pretty much all about dancing and sex. Dancing and sex should be fun – and this music is as straightforwardly and uncomplicatedly pleasurable as it gets. Plus, I could hardly enjoy the full implications of all this in the car on the way to primary school, could I? Now that I can, it’s great to have them back.

In many ways, The B-52s and Was (Not Was) shared similar career trajectories. Both bands started out at the vanguard of alternative fashion – The B-52s uniting new wave and gay disco, Don and David Was emerging as pioneering producers and droll lyricists as part of the Ze records mutant disco staple. Both bands gradually embraced slicker production techniques, and expanded their popularity and radio-friendly credentials as a result. Yet, there were always oddities. Even as ‘Walk The Dinosaur’ and the quite brilliant ‘Spy In The House of Love’ stormed the pop charts, their parent album ‘What Up Dog?’ contained moments of real strangeness - songs like ‘Shadow and Jimmy’, co-written with Elvis Costello and one of the saddest, most melancholy stories imaginable, set to a Cajun lilt, and ‘Hello Dad, I’m in Jail’, a snarling, sardonic one minute rant that sounded positively avant garde. Importantly, both groups proved as adept at being hit factories as they were at being original and innovative.

‘Boo!’ is Don and David Was’ first new studio album since 1990’s ‘Are You Okay?’ (on which they felt better than James Brown and cavorted with Kim Basinger), but it retains all of their weird and wonderful qualities, as well as a cast of familiar faces and some stellar supporting musicians. The grizzly voiced Sweet Pea Atkinson remains the perfect mouthpiece for Don and David’s peculiar song-stories, whilst the group effortlessly craft the kind of bristling, precision-perfect funk that has long been subordinated to robotic R&B. It’s refreshing to be reminded of how energising and exciting this music can be when handled well.

The opening ‘Semi-Interesting Week’ is an awesome summation of this group’s off-the-wall qualities, a verbose story that begins with Sweet Pea enjoying some action with some patriotic twins from Washington DC, continues with him dismembering someone who insults him as ‘a dirty Jew’ (‘I assured him I had showered that very morning…’) and ends with aliens invading Hollywood. It’s a brilliant curtain-raiser and its maverick spirit is further developed with the irresistibly groovy ‘Forget Everything’ and ‘Mr. Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore’, apparently co-written with Bob Dylan. This fact isn’t as surprising as many seem to think, given that a number of these songs apparently date back to the early nineties and Dylan hired Don Was as producer for ‘Under The Red Sky’, his first studio album of that decade. All these tracks are elevated by some superb horn charts, and a seemingly unstoppable party vibe.

Elsewhere, the surreal elements become stronger, and the music gets murkier. ‘Needletooth’ is a disorientating close relation to ‘Hello Dad…’, David once more sounding like a total lunatic, whilst Kris Kristofferson sounds similarly unhinged (or at least a lot like Mark Lanegan) on the unsettling, blackly comic closer ‘Green Pills In The Drawer’. ‘Big Black Hole’ neatly combines the group’s interests – a notably dour song set to an urgent rhythm.

Don and David even pull off the album’s cheesiest moments. ‘It’s a Miracle’ is sweet, honey-laden soul benefiting from some sublime guitar playing, whilst first single ‘Crazy Water’ is a completely satisfying refashioning of a New Orleans stomp. It’s fascinating that in today’s climate, such well-crafted and sophisticated pop music can now seem thoroughly unfashionable and a genuine alternative to mainstream chart music, which now incorporates as much unambitious ‘indie’ tedium as it does mass-produced manufactured dross. Here are two of the best albums of the year so far, all the more impressive because they both sound as if they are hardly even trying.

No comments: