If you think the crazy funk spirit of Parliament/Funkadelic is dead, or at least missing from the contemporary music scene, you obviously haven’t heard Was (Not Was). Granted, it’s been a long 16 years since the Don and David brotherly duo last blessed us with a release. But these zany guys have once again gathered together a funky group of fellow singers and players, who are always up for the down stroke.
These musicians get their freak on most of all during “Needletooth”, which sounds like a barfly trying to pick up on some unsuspecting chick. “Back when I ate cactus pie / They called me Needletooth,” he announces. Only this particular barfly also speaks with treated vocals that make him sound like a robot—to the point where most of his humorous one-liners fall completely flat. But then again, “From the Head to the Heart” is as serious as “Needletooth” is silly. It begins with: “There’s a story in the paper / About a young boy laying dead.” This young man was killed, we’re told, while trying to steal a TV, done in by a sharp piece of falling glass. Rather than revving up the groove, Was (Not Was) slow this latter one down to a piano-led ballad.
Although the most of this disc is smart funk, there are also many other R&B elements thrown into the mix for variety’s sake. For instance, “It’s a Miracle” flows like old Chicago soul—think the Impressions. The funk even varies from song to song, as “Your Luck Won’t Last” is the fast, stripped-down kind, sounding like ‘80s Prince music. David and Don Was had Bob Dylan’s help writing one of these songs, “Mr. Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore”, which—with its flute—comes off like Curtis Mayfield Superfly music, albeit mixed with the blues. Then there’s the spoken word “Green Pills in the Dresser”, which borrows Kris Kristofferson’s drawl to tell its twisted little story.
These Was folks don’t ever sing their own songs, except for providing backing vocals. Instead, the wonderful Sweet Pea Atkinson mostly belts these tracks out, along with Sir Harry Bowens and Donald Ray Mitchell. Was-ers also employ some of L.A.’s best session musicians, including Lenny Castro (percussion) and Greg Liesz (pedal steel guitar).
Boo! can be enjoyed on a few different levels: You can listen to this work and simply dig all the fat, old school R&B musicianship. But if you’re the brainy sort, you can alternately try and figure out exactly happens in the story of “Semi-Interesting Week”, or speculate on the political implications of “Crazy Water”. Either way, you’ll find plenty enough food for thought and feet.
Boo! is not, by the way, filled with scary music. Sure, there’s a little death in “It’s a Miracle” and “From the Head to the Heart”. But it is mostly of the real life sort, and not at all anything supernatural. Then again, human nature can be a pretty frightening thing, and much of this music dredges up the dregs of so-called civil society.
The problem with Was (Not Was) is that Don Was is an in-demand producer. This doesn’t actually hurt Was (Not Was)‘s music; it just keeps him from teaming with his brother and making wonderful CDs like Boo!. So let’s hope production duties slow down and it’s not another 16 years before Was (Not Was) is again.