Monday, November 22, 2010

Thoughts of an Aspiring Music Snob:
Week 83: Devo

Chris is trying to compensate for his lack of musical knowledge by immersing himself in one new artist each week. At the end of the week, he will write up a brief summary of his opinions. You can read about the origin and parameters of this project here.

At the risk of pointing out something that everyone else figured out decades ago, Devo is weird

I mean, their music is strange enough, with the piercing electronic instruments and the jerky vocals. But this week I also started watching a bunch of the band's old music videos, where things get really trippy. The video that launched the group to success - The Truth About Devolution - features two men in gorilla masks hitting a woman's butt with ping-pong paddles, and a strange sequence where Mark Mothersbaugh sings "Jocko Homo" to a riotous college classroom. It's not uncommon for members of the band to be wearing weird masks - the eerie "Booji Boy" is the most famous, but there are others, masks that are melting, masks with one eye, masks that help the band assume their "Mongoloid" appearance.

These early videos don't make a whole lot of sense, but somehow they feel fresh. Devo started with a bunch of art students in Ohio getting mad at the Kent State shootings, and they put together music, videos and costumes to mock the "devolution" of mankind. I won't pretend that their art is ideologically coherent in any sense, but there's the general feeling that the band is satirizing the mechanization and dumbing-down of human society. 

The songs are weird and the videos make little to no sense, but there's still a sense of youthful exuberance about the whole endeavor. The band doesn't know the rules and doesn't care to learn. Watch this strange clip from Neil Young's trippy movie Human Highway, where the band, in masks, plays with Young on "Hey Hey My My." One of them wears a Booji Boy mask while sitting in a crib playing a keyboard. The music rocks, but there's a sinister vibe as well, mostly from Booji Boy's eerily rigid vocals. Check it out:

Neil Young & Devo

Paul | Myspace Video

I don't know what is going on, but I can't deny that it's interesting. And that's true of a lot of Devo's early stuff. Watching old live videos on YouTube, I can't help but notice how raucous the band is, even amid their trademark stiff dancing and nasally vocals.

By contrast, their later stuff feels much more calculated. Cut to only a few years later. After Devo exhausted their early art school repertoire on their first two albums, Freedom of Choice represented a step in a new direction. The synthesizers were louder, the music was more polished, their punk sympathies abandoned for a more robotic, sterile kind of synthpop. The songs are still decent, but there's a sense that the band is trying too hard to keep up their weirdo aesthetic. 

Look at their video for "Whip It," the band's one bona fide hit. The strangeness is still present, including the "energy dome" hats, the cross-eyed Asians, the act of whipping off a woman's clothes. But that energy is gone, and it no longer feels like art students having fun. It feels like a band trying really hard to do something different. 

Devo - Whip It

I'm not sure if Devo really had anything that deep to say, in the beginning or at the end. But whatever they were trying to say, they said it with a lot more pep and creativity early in their career. There's a fine line between avant-garde art and novelty act, and at some point they crossed it. The turning point is difficult to pin down, and maybe my mind is simply baked after listening to Devo all week. But I'll take the band's awkward seventies years over their streamlined eighties rock any day of the week. 



WHAT I KNEW BEFORE: If you watch any one of those shows on VH1 - I Love the 80s, Top 100 One Hit Wonders, I Love the Top 100 One Hit Wonders From the 80s - you're likely to see Michael Ian Black or Mo Rocca talking about the video to "Whip It." I did.

I also heard a lot of Mark Mothersbaugh's compositions for the Rugrats soundtrack, once upon a time. 

MY LISTENING: I listened to Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo! (1978) every day this week. I also listened to Freedom of Choice (1980) three times, and Duty Now For The Future (1979) and New Traditionalists (1981) once each. 

WHAT I LIKED: I think I've documented my love of synthesizers in the past, but Devo's music impressed me the most when they relied less on the synths and more on the jarring guitar lines of their early stuff. Songs like "Uncontrollable Urge," for example, sound more like punk than electronica. "Jocko Homo" is another good early song in which they manage to combine the guitars with the weirder electronic stuff, and probably represents the most robotic that their singing (and dancing) ever gets. 

Other songs from their first album are a bit more jarring. "Too Much Paranoias" and "Shrivel Up" both sound dissonant and sinister, and are a good representation of the band's deadpan satirical take on modern society. The satire continues in later albums, but it would never again sound this dark.

Devo's second album, Duty Now For The Future, is a little bit more electronic than their first, but still manages to deftly tread the line between guitars and synthesizers. "Wiggly World" is a fun song in this style. And "Secret Agent Man" is but one indication of how well the band can do covers. Their stiff, rigid vocals and guitar lines somehow complement the track, preserving a good song while still adding their own Devo touch. 

And no, I won't neglect the synthesizers. "Devo Corporate Anthem" and "Timing X" are two great pieces that showcase the band's growing, Eno-inspired interest in electronic instruments before they morphed into their cheesier synthpop. The synthesizers here sound less streamlined and more raw, if that makes any sense.

WHAT I DIDN'T LIKE: It's not that I hate what Devo did after their first two albums, but I think there's no denying that they found a niche as a novelty act and played it up. "Whip It" is both really catchy and really annoying; previous overexposure to this song had me tired of it by the end of the week. The riff will stay in your head all day, but there's no meat to it, and it strikes me as fluffier and less substantial than the band's earlier stuff. The biting satire has been replaced with directionless weirdness.

The same could be said for most of Freedom of Choice and New Traditionalists. Songs like "Freedom of Choice" or "Beautiful World" are catchy but ultimately forgettable synthpop, stuff that ends up sounding more like a parody of a Devo song than an actual Devo song. Something was lost after Devo's first two albums. The move toward electronic instruments might have had something to do with it. But the first two albums are also filled with the songs the band had been playing since their college days; when they started writing new tracks in the eighties, it's as if they forgot that they were tongue in cheek, and became as eccentric as they once pretended to be. 

FURTHER EXPLORATION WOULD ENTAIL: There's Oh No! It's Devo! (1982), with yet another costume change for the band, and Shout (1984). Following that was a string of albums in the late 80s that even hard-core Devo fans seem to be ambivalent toward. And Devo came out with a new album just this June - Somebody for Everybody - in which the Internet voted for the songs to be included. Apparently it's not terrible, but I'm pretty Devo-ed out this week. 

BEST SONG YOU'VE HEARD: "I Can't Get No Satisfaction." 

Devo - Satisfaction

No, not "Whip It." You've heard this song one way or another, but I think Devo's version - almost unrecognizable - is a great cover, with scratching guitars, a solid rhythm section, and vocals that manage to be funky, catchy, awkward, and annoying all at the same time. 

BEST SONG YOU HAVEN'T HEARD: "Gut Feeling (Slap Your Mammy)"

I like how this song builds from a nice-sounding guitar at the beginning to nails-on-chalkboard dissonance at the end.