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Friday, August 17, 2012

The B-52's: Bouncing Off The Satellites


1) Summer Of Love; 2) Girl From Ipanema Goes To Greenland; 3) Housework; 4) Detour Thru Your Mind; 5) Wig; 6) Theme For A Nude Beach; 7) Ain't It A Shame; 8) Juicy Jungle; 9) Communicate; 10) She Brakes For Rainbows.

Goodbye Ricky Wilson, hello 1986. Had we not known the circumstances, it would be tempting to speculate that Ricky Wilson took his own life so as to be free of the terror of witnessing the worst year in musical history, but in reality, of course, he died of AIDS several months after the initial sessions for this record were completed. Predictably, the band plunged into depression, distractedly patched up the final product, released it with relatively little promotion, did not go on tour, and eventually just took a long, long hiatus.

But the main problem with this album is certainly not Ricky's death, since, after all, most of it was written and much of it was recorded while he was still alive, and carefully concealing his ill­ness from his friends and relatives. The main problem... wait, there are two main problems, actu­ally. First, that musically they have practically completed the transition to regular synth-pop. Not all of the record is electronic, but when the opening number populates the entire first minute with nothing but drum machines and synths, you know where the priorities lie.

Second, and even worse, is the realization that the band's ship finally collided with the reef of seriousness, and it isn't the reef that's going down. From top to bottom, Bouncing Off The Satellites is loaded with quasi-sincere romanticism (ʽSummer Of Loveʼ, ʽShe Brakes For Rain­bowsʼ), social messagism (ʽCommunicateʼ), eco-friendly anthemism (ʽJuicy Jungleʼ), and stone-faced absurdism (ʽGirl From Ipanema Goes To Greenlandʼ, a straightforward synth-rocker whose title is far more interesting than its contents).

There is only one number on the entire album that tries to recreate the old party atmosphere, and in doing that, it goes over the top — ʽWigʼ, celebrating the principal visual fetish of the band's en­tire career, ultimately sounds like somebody's rather flat parody on the B-52's, filled with cheap «wig humor» and minimal lyrics. And in the context of the album its absurdly fast tempos, «ex­uberant» group harmonies, and repetitive mantras ("wigs on fire, wigs on fire!") sound like some­thing they forced on themselves at the last minute ("hey guys, this thing's coming out too morose, let's make the silliest song in the universe or something").

It is not utterly without redeem. The band still remembers the craft of vocal hooks, the girls and Fred are still in fine voice, and they still know how to weave a good mood, even if the thread now consists of about 80% electronic fiber. ʽShe Brakes For Rainbowsʼ, in particular, is a very pretty conclusion, which could, in a way, be seen as Cindy's paradise-evoking eulogy for her brother: considering the circumstances, Bouncing Off The Satellites could be justified to end on a color­ful, melancholic-romantic note. Pierson's ʽHouseworkʼ is hilarious — a wicked send-up of the «tough girl» image of 1980's pop culture that you could read literally, ironically, or both ("don't need a man to make me mean / I need a man to help me clean"). And ʽDetour Through Your Mindʼ, Fred's stream-of-conscious collage of sci-fi, psychedelia, and social critique run through a simple, but not too annoying dance track and the girls' cloudy harmonies, merits additional listens (including a backwards one, in order to decode the spoken message at the end — which, unlike Wiki­pedia, I won't ruin for you).

I have also learned to near-enjoy ʽJuicy Jungleʼ, despite its straightforward environmentalism (nothing wrong with environmentalism, but when I want to hear about jungle preservation, I don't think Fred Schneider should be the first person I'd have in mind) — the «stern» chorus is just too catchy. On the other hand, ʽSummer Of Loveʼ and ʽGirl From Ipanemaʼ let their synth-pop arran­gements overshadow the vocals, vibes, and lyrics; and ʽTheme For A Nude Beachʼ is literally the worst B-52's song up to date — it gets easier to swallow if you keep reminding yourself that it is really a parody on the decade's epitome-of-tastelessness «beach romance dance numbers», but it's still hard to do because the song itself, every now and then, seems to forget that it's a parody and takes on a quasi-serious life of its own.

Overall, I'm on the fence here — initial pure hatred for this record has slowly dissipated once the hooks and some intelligence came through, so, in the end, I would just regard it as an ill-fated product of its epoch, infected by its most frequent viruses. All of these songs could have been written and recorded in 1979, with a completely different effect. One should hardly force oneself to like Bouncing Off The Satellites, but to me, it is clearly a product of a «misguided» band here rather than that of a «washed up» one. In retrospect, we can probably forgive and ignore the flaws — in a way, it's a wonder that, given the circumstances, they still managed to come up with something listenable in the first place — and concentrate on the strengths.

Check "Bouncing Off The Satellites" (CD) on Amazon
Check "Bouncing Off The Satellites" (MP3) on Amazon

1 comment:

  1. A curious muddled record. It's certainly the weakest of the Ricky-era, but I don't feel any major dislike towards it (aside from one or two tracks like "Nude Beach"). The musical backing is getting more generic thanks partly to the studio musicians called in to replace Ricky on some tracks, but also to the general synthiness of the late 80s. I'm actually quite fond of most of the first side, "Ipanema" and "Summer" aren't exactly the most distinctive songs ever but they're both solid and have some of the girl's strongest vocals. I really like "Detour" as well.
    You hit the nail on the head with the "misguided rather than washed up" comment. This is the end of the band's most prime years, but it still falls under the banner. When they would return after their hiatus they would still be capable of some good stuff but something was missing.