THE B-52'S: FUNPLEX (2008)
1) Pump; 2) Hot Corner; 3) Ultraviolet; 4) Juliet Of The Spirits; 5) Funplex; 6) Eyes Wide Open; 7) Love In The Year 3000; 8) Deviant Ingredient; 9) Too Much To Think About; 10) Dancing Now; 11) Keep This Party Going.
So here is the question. Is it at all possible for the once greatest nerd-party band of all time to still put out something even vaguely credible once its members are all pushing past fifty? (Kate Pierson, the eldest of the lot, actually turned 60 in 2008). Yes, in the past two decades we have all learned to cope with the «too old to rock'n'roll, too young to die» mentality, and some of us have even been able to come to terms with Grandpa Mick still wiggling his bellybutton with an oxygen tank waiting backstage. But the B-52's — well, there is something different here. Despite Mesopotamia and David Byrne, despite Ricky Wilson's tragic experience, despite all of the ups and downs and changing fashions, they never really managed to grow out of the «college party soundtrack» genre — they just reshaped its angles from time to time.
And now, here is one more record from the B-52's — more than fifteen years after the success of Cosmic Thing and Good Stuff gave them enough moolah to finally have the guts to call it a day and retire... for a while. Well, actually, they did not retire as such: they just banned themselves from the studio (only recording a couple new tracks for the 1998 Time Capsule anthology) and cut down on live appearances, but still regularly appeared on public every now and then. Until, it is said, Keith Strickland heard New Order's Get Ready and decided that here was just the kind of sound that the band could turn to their advantage in the 21st century. So they grabbed New Order's producer and went into the studio. And?...
Well... I like it. It is advisable to forget about the age problem, or else the vision of a 60-year old Kate Pierson (or is that Cindy? I still have some occasional trouble telling one from the other, not that it seriously matters) opening the show with "I look at you and I'm ready to pump" might be a gross turnoff (unless you're into cougarism, that is). But reality is such that, even after all these years, both Kate and Cindy sound almost exactly the same way they sounded in 1979 — more experienced, perhaps, more professional, disciplined, and taking a little extra care so as not to over-exert themselves, but essentially just ringing out with the same clarity and youthful audacity as they always did. So does Schneider, although this is less of a surprise: his «nerdy-talky» vocal style obviously takes less effort to preserve through the years. Let's take a look at him when he's pushing ninety, and then start expressing admiration.
Also, this new sound works very well. An excellent balance between some new-fangled electronics and old-school guitar rock, masterminded by Strickland — everything sounds modern and trendy, yet, at the same time, is quite consistent with the basic legacy of the B-52's. The melodies themselves are not particularly memorable or original, since the main effort, as always, is invested in the pop choruses, but they sound swell: the guitars either pack a good deal of distorted crunch or play funny funky riffs, and the synthesizers throw on a huge variety of tones and modes, imitating organs, electric pianos, strings, jumping from sci-fi to techno to ambient colors with each next number. Yes, everything is way too polished and calculated to hope to match the old glories, but nothing else could be expected anyway ever since Cosmic Thing convinced the band that «polish» is one of the major keys to success. Besides, being reckless and chaotic is fun for the young ones. As you grow older, it is quite natural to calculate your fun in advance.
And these «calculated» songs are all excellent samples of the calculated approach. The first three songs are all fast-paced variations on the same single topic, but they are all exciting variations, and I have no idea which one I like better — "pump it up, give it up, turn up the track!", "shake it to the last round, shimmy in a Lurex gown!", or "lovin' it, lovin' it... ultraviolet!" Maybe the second one, with its echoes of 1960s dance-pop. You might prefer the much more modern ʽUltravioletʼ. Who cares? "Keep doin' what you're doin' cause you're doin' it right", Schneider says in ʽUltravioletʼ, and that's the ticket indeed.
They actually break away — just a little bit — from the formula only once, on the (still danceable) neo-disco ballad ʽJuliet Of The Spiritsʼ, a surprisingly adequate adaptation of the subject of a Fellini movie (mid-aged matron daring to open up and discover the «sensual world») to the current B-52's aesthetics (mid-aged perennial nerds still justifying their own seclusion in that same world). The arrangement is a little dumb, especially considering that, while still in their prime, the B-52's normally shunned disco (also in its prime), but the catchy vocal hooks and the reasonable sentiments are still attractive. (And if the song urges somebody to go see Juliet Of The Spirits — well, it ain't one of Fellini's best, for my money, but a little enlightenment never hurt anybody).
After that, the «party» formula reasserts itself in dictatorial mode. "It's a shallow existence, but oh yeah... I need it, I want it, I got to have it" — these words, spoken in breathy, sensual mode (ʽDeviant Ingredientʼ) pretty much say it all, as usual: superficial shallowness, seriously deepened by some acid irony, which might go unnoticed by those listeners who only saw the B-52's as «party animals», without paying attention to the «nerdy» part of the formula. But even without the irony, these songs have a fine rock sound, lively, pulsating grooves and brilliantly worked out vocal hooks, so what's not to like?
Once it all ends with the aptly titled «message» song ʽKeep This Party Goingʼ ("we've gotta be part of the universe, keep this party going all night long"), you would expect to be tired and worn out from the monotousness — just how many mid-to-fast-tempo party-pop-rockers can one's organism stand without overdosing? — but I never felt any tiredness, certainly not with these sharp brain-needles (like the girls' frenzied "things are getting dirty down in Washing-TOON!...") strategically inserted at all the right spots.
In the end, although, overall, this is a «typically late-period» B-52's record, I'd say that it knocks down Good Stuff with a vengeance, and that it is slightly less embarrassing than Cosmic Thing — and more consistent, too: there are no particular high points here, but this is only because it is hard to imagine how any of these songs, all based upon the same winning formula, could be much better than others. The very fact that the album managed to reach #11 on the US charts — after fifteen years of silence, coming from a band of old nerdy farts, and on a fiercely competitive market at that — shows how much seductive power this Funplex has, and my own experience does not deny that power, so a thumbs up by all means. Plus, check out their videos from circa around 2008 — hard to believe, yes, but they still look cool (or hot, whichever you prefer).
Check "Funplex" (MP3) on Amazon