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Friday, August 3, 2012

The B-52's: Mesopotamia


1) Loveland; 2) Deep Sleep; 3) Mesopotamia; 4) Cake; 5) Throw That Beat In The Garbage Can; 6) Nip It In The Bud.

This six-song EP, an important turning point in the B-52's career, frequently gets a bad rap from critics and fans alike. Not too happy, perhaps, with the perspective of recording the same album third time in a row, and also looking for a little «artistic maturity», the band eagerly took up the offer of teaming up with David Byrne to produce their next album — a heavenly match, one might think, given the many intersection points between the B-52's and the Talking Heads; in a way, one could even think of classic-era B-52's as «Talking Heads for kiddos».

For some reason, the relationship turned out sour: the parties ended up disagreeing on the final mixes, and this, together with excessive pressure on the part of the record label, brought the ses­sions to an early halt — what was conceived as a full LP came out as a six-song EP (although three other songs from the sessions were later re-recorded for Whammy!). And when it did come out, people were disappointed. Gone was the humor and the young teenish rave-up atmosphere that ruled supreme on The B-52's and Wild Planet. Instead, we found cold wobbly-funky Heads-styles riffs, a Byrnish atmosphere of absurdist paranoia, and synth/horn arrangements that would rather suit boring parties than awesome ones.

But in all honesty, I fail to see what exactly is wrong with that. Yes, Mesopotamia is all that and more, but it works fairly well as a «second-rate Talking Heads» experience with a few shades of classic B-52's carried over and a few extra influences thrown in the mix as well. This is not so much a «loss of direction» as a conscious attempt to give it a slight change, and the actual songs — credited, by the way, exclusively to the band members, never to Byrne — do not sound at all like they didn't believe in what they were doing: the music, as usual, is rather calculated and de­tached, but the singing, especially when the girls join in, is fab. All in all, Mesopotamia really does sound like the «grown-up» version of Wild Planet. Those sharing the preconception that a band like The B-52's cannot possibly grow up, but can only explode trying, should stay away. Others may, and hopefully will, find a lot to like.

The title track is the clear highlight — it takes a huge risk starting off with exactly one minute and five seconds of a repetitive groove that does sound like second-rate Talking Heads (I perso­nally get a splitting headache from the jungle-jangle around the twentieth second), but then turns into a cool mix of robotic dumbness. "I ain't no student of ancient culture", Schneider sings, "be­fore I talk, I should read a book", and he's not joking about that one: trying to locate "the third pyramid" in Mesopotamia, of all places, hardly makes any more sense than inviting us to "turn your watch back about a hundred thousand years", but that is just the point — the song is not about Mesopotamia as such (bring on somebody like Al Stewart for historic accuracy), it's about the distorted pers­pective on things that can fasten itself to anybody's mind, and the dogmatic «rectangular» guitar lines and half-zombified, half-somnambulized back vocals from the girls only enforce the feeling. Could the Heads have done it better? Not sure. Byrne would probably have gone hysterical at some point, and that would not be what the song requires.

Cindy Wilson bakes up terrific performances on ʽLovelandʼ, which opens the EP, and ʽNip It In The Budʼ, which closes it — the songs may not be built on the best grooves in the world, but the girl is capable of sexy solemnity on the former, and of cocky impertinence on the latter. Actually, ʽNip It In The Budʼ and ʽThrow That Beat In The Garbage Canʼ are the only two songs on here to conjure an atmosphere of moderate hooliganry, reminiscent of the days of old — except now they use synth loops and horn overdubs to back it (but it still works).

On the other hand, ʽCakeʼ is something they never did before — a rather straightforward dance number so full of GROSS sexual innuendos that it could make Prince blush (speaking of Prince, the dialog that Kate and Cindy get going in the mid-section is basically proto-Wendy-and-Lisa stuff. "It says in this cookbook it takes a long time to rise...", yeah, right). But it is a fun, sexy number, if not exactly fit for a nice little college party. ʽDeep Sleepʼ, a slow mood number, may perhaps be the one true weak link in the chain, but it does have an attractively melancholic piano hook, and even on a six-pack like this, one slightly saggy slow-burner is not enough to drag down the overall impression.

Mesopotamia is available in several guises these days, including a UK version with extended mixes of several of the tracks, and a new remix from 1991, released on CD together with Party Mix! (originally an EP of remixes of the band's «classic» tunes from 1981). Too much honor for an album that almost destroyed the B-52's reputation, some critics would grudgingly say; but I have the pleasure of disagreeing, and happily award the record a thumbs up. In all fairness, I cannot even say how much Byrne himself was responsible for this shift of direction — but if he was, after all, it's a pity they didn't get to spend even more time together.

1 comment:

  1. I'm kind of glad that they never managed to make this into a full LP. It's a good record for sure, but I think it may have dragged at full length. There's nothing wrong with some 2nd-rate Talking Heads but too much of it and you'll just start wondering why you aren't listening to the real deal instead. With only 6 tracks this album hardly has a chance to grow old on you before it's over. However the title track is the only song here I really love. The other songs are just fine but don't really blow me away in any big capacity. So while still being a decent record this is my least favourite of their Ricky-era output.