Wednesday, April 2, 2008

The B-52s - "Funplex" (Astralwerks 2008)

I’m a huge supporter of the avant-garde. All the way back to Lautréamont I’m 100% behind what it’s trying to accomplish and find the honest practioners of it, in whatever medium, to be genius. Detractors constantly ask me, “How can you tell the difference between avant-garde and some crap somebody threw together?” Well, for me it’s an emotive thing – if whatever I’m looking at or listening to affects me on an emotional level it’s authentic. Opinions are like noses, though, right?

When I first heard “Rock Lobster” in 1985 or 1986 I fucking hated it. There was still enough small town Texan in me that something that weird couldn’t possibly have any value. Even after falling in love with the relentless weirdness of The Butthole Surfers “Rock Lobster” just sounded irritating to me. And you know what? It still does.

When I moved to Austin and became more cosmopolitan in an Austin kind of way I developed a greater and greater appreciation for avant-garde art forms, as one pretty much had to do if you wanted to hang out with anyone cool in those days, until I reached my current level of “sophistication”, ahem. I still didn’t like “Rock Lobster” and was indifferent to their further offerings like Wild Planet, Whammy!, and Bouncing off the Satellites (all recorded and released before I even knew they existed). I knew they were the real deal, though – I was driven to distraction by my older friends repeatedly and passionately insisting that a) I was too young to understand it, b) I had no idea what kind of impact a song that sounded like “Rock Lobster” had on the underground music scene when it was released, c) appreciating The B-52’s required a level of cultural sophistication I didn’t have and that if I didn’t admit “Rock Lobster” was brilliant I was never likely to reach, or d) I just had poor, one-dimensional musical taste. All of this may have had some merit. All I know is I quit getting shit when Cosmic Thing dropped in 1989.

Even though everyone I knew hated that record, it was a rare, good and lucky night if you didn’t have to listen to “Love Shack” at any parties you dropped in on. Usually you had to hear it at least twice at every single one of them. I really thought my opinion on The B-52’s was locked in for eternity at that point.

When I decided to review REM’s new one, which I didn’t expect to like, I figured I’d go ahead and do another venerable Athens, GA band’s new release that I didn’t expect to like and picked up Funplex.

“Pump”, the opening track, hit me like a punch in the mouth. A driving bass/drum combo with a little electronic noise over the top that kicks in with one badass garage guitar riff on the 8th measure. The lyrics are typically lascivious as hell, Kate Pierson and Cindy Wilson harmonize like angels when Pierson isn’t taking solo lead vocal, and Fred Schneider’s sprechgesang, one of my most consistent annoyances with this band, is actually well utilized and works. The trend continues for the next couple of songs – the B-52’s sound like a garage go-go band and it totally rocks. Immediately following the mellower, melancholy “Juliet of the Spirits”, album single “Funplex” hits like a bomb. A heavy, driving riff dropping straight off into a powerful Kate Pierson vocal makes for one killer, dynamic piece of work. Schneider shouts in the background, “Too much to do! It’s time for a pill!” – God knows I can relate to that. I was in love.

Unfortunately, that’s where the magic ends. The second half of the record is an unfocused, almost formulaic expedition into electronica. The B-52’s are certainly no strangers to this realm, which makes it all the more disappointing. The pop structures, the gorgeous harmonies, the lascivious lyrics are all there, but it is uninspired at best and downright boring at worst. The spark that so brilliantly lit the first half of Funplex is just gone.

There is a moment of redemption with “Keep This Party Going”, the closing track. That driving bass and badass guitar are back, overlaid with a super sultry Pierson vocal. The chorus is a terrific fist pumping chant and, all in all, it’s a pretty rocking way to finish off a record. It doesn’t save the doldrums of the rest of the second half, but at least that’s not all you’re left with.

Has my overall opinion of the B-52’s changed? Not entirely. I always suspected that there was a great band somewhere in there, and Funplex certainly proved it to me beyond a shadow of a doubt. Unfortunately they also gave equal time to all the reasons I haven’t liked them in the past – if that weren’t bad enough they didn’t even do it in an enthusiastic way.

I think B-52’s fans out there will be well pleased with this outing. They’re certainly not going to be as critical as I’ve been and likely a lot more forgiving. One thing I’ve never disagreed with is that The B-52’s are a good time, party band. They don’t stand to lose any of that cred with this record.

2 out of 4 beehives

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

But I like "Love Shack"....thank God I'm family, huh?