Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Devo returns with 'Something for Everybody'

The other day, by means I cannot disclose, I got a hold of Devo's first new album in 20 years, “Something for Everybody,” two days early. I shared my enthusiasm with an acquaintance via instant messaging and got: "Who is Devo?" Inevitably, two words clued this person in: “Whip It.” This is fine, I realize to the general public Devo is just a one-hit wonder. So, while I can excuse not knowing Devo, I cannot forgive the next exchange. When I said Devo was an acquired taste, I was informed that it was one acquired by “awkward teens in the 1980s and 1990s.” I took great offense to this. After all, I acquired my taste for Devo in my 20s.

To the casual listener, Devo seems like nothing more than a novelty act interchangeable with a dozen other New Wavers. Devo actually sprung out of the art rock and punk scene of the mid-late 1970s. Thanks to the advocacy of David Bowie and Iggy Pop they were able to score a record deal. Their pioneering use of synthesizers and digital noise and sound effects helped pave the way for New Wave, techno and electronica.

Devo's impact can be heard throughout pop songs currently on the airwaves from Gorillaz to Lady Gaga. The 1980s sound that Devo helped create has been making a resurgence for several years that seems to be cresting. If there was a time for Devo to make a comeback album than this is it.

There is nothing really new on “Something For Everybody” and, yet, the album isn't stale. Too often when a band produces a new album for the first time in decades it seems like nothing more than a shameless cash grab or the material just isn't up to snuff. That is not the case here. Devo's original spark and magic is still very much present.

The lead off single “Fresh” is aptly named and is quintessential Devo. With an instantly infectious lead guitar part provided by Bob Mothersbaugh, driving drums, the band's signature use of synth and Mark Mothersbaugh's idiosyncratic vocals it deserves to stand along side Devo's best.

Some are likely to complain that a lot of the beats, riffs and digital effects have been heard on previous albums and that the band is merely reshuffling and repackaging their catalogue. On some songs this feels more apparent. The opening to “Sumthin'” sounds awfully similar to “Whip It” even down to the whip sound effects. Yet, the songs still remain so catchy, ear-worming their way into your mind, that it is hard to complain.

Devo seem to be aware of this possible complaint and directly address it on “What We Do” which features the cheeky lyric: “What we do/Is what we do/It's all the same/It's nothing new.” The lyric also doubles as a satirical commentary in the tradition of the de-evolution themes that spawned their name. Later in the song, the lyrics address a never-ending cycle of consumerism: “Being breathing pumping gas/Cheese burger cheese burger/Do it again.”

I've always found that at least some of Devo's songs are partially influenced by 1950s pop, girl groups and rockabilly, particularly the songs from “Freedom of Choice.” That tradition of echoing the 1950s, albeit filtered through Devo's electronic formula, is continued here on “Please Baby Please” which even including some “whoa-os.”

“Mind Games” is a typically bitter, cynical take on love that features such biting lyrics as “If you think black is black
/And white is white/ Open up your eyes /And get it right.” Naturally, the lyrics are effectively put into direct juxtaposition with catchy, upbeat music.

“No Place Like Home,” with its use of piano and string arrangements, is perhaps the most surprising moment on the album. Fear not, Devo hasn't entered the realm of sappy ballads. The piano and strings are seamless integrated with Devo's familiar guitar and synth template and add an emotional weight to the song's lyrics which address our impact on the planet.

Throughout the album, the band sounds tight and vocally Mark Mothersbaugh, Bob Mothersbaugh and Gerald Casale don't sound like they've aged a bit. The guitars, which became less prominent and eventually disappeared as the band got deeper into the 1980s, are back in a big way. This a good union between the synth heavy side of Devo and the punkier sound of early Devo. The songs may no longer be groundbreaking, but they remain solidly entertaining. Basically, Devo is back.

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