It’s been 16 years since that wacky band of Athenians, the B-52’s, bombed out with Good Stuff, an album that wasn’t good, and was so slight and joyless that it barely even felt like stuff. It had seemed like a sad ending for a group that had once been so vital. Their first pair of full-lengths in particular — 1979’s self-titled debut and 1980’s Wild Planet — never fail to upturn a sour mood by calling forth ridiculous dance moves, fish calls, and sweaty group gyrations. The combination of Fred Schneider’s goofball proclamations and the excellent vocals — both solo and in heavenly harmony — of Kate Pierson and Cindy Wilson is among the most infectious in all of new wave music.
The band cooled off a bit after its auspicious beginnings, releasing so-so EPs in ’81 and ’82, and returning with the only pretty good Whammy! in 1983. The B-52’s first low times came in 1985 when guitarist Ricky Wilson died of AIDS. Not surprisingly, the band’s ’86 LP, Bouncing Off the Satellites, was a hit-or-miss affair. They could’ve chosen to call it quits then; instead, they showed a resiliency that now seems emblematic. Keith Strickland switched from drums to guitar, and the group issued one of its finest albums in 1989, the sunny and buoyant Cosmic Thing. That its rather limp follow-up, Good Stuff, emerged at the beginning of the raw and rockin’ grunge era made the album sound that much more hollow and behind-the-times.
Now it’s 2008, and those once crazy kids with their beehive hairdos and cheesy mustaches must be hovering around 50 years old. Look at them on the cover of their new CD, though! The B-52’s are fit, tanned, and poised to strike. You can actually judge a lot by that cover (and the back inlay). First, the group is signed to Astralwerks, a label well known for mixing electronica and pop/rock elements. Second, for a bunch of middle-aged folks to look that good, you know they must be hitting the cardio machines several times a week, with hard-pumping jams feeding them energy through their earbuds. This is exactly the sonic recipe we find on The B-52’s new album, Funplex: up-tempo guitar pop backed by steadily driving, club-friendly rhythms.
What makes this stand out as a B-52’s record are Fred, Kate, and Cindy. Their vocals are the life of the band. Yes, Keith Strickland has composed some snappy tunes here, and producer Steve Osborne (Doves, New Order, KT Tunstall) has forwarded the group’s sound into the new millennium. Nonetheless, the heart of the band resides in its kooky cast of singers, and the wonderfully weird lyrics they pen. Even the album title (which shares its name with the lead single) gets you primed for, well, fun! This what we want from the B-52’s, and this is what they deliver.
In “Funplex” (the song), Schneider evokes his patented manic drawl, commanding, “Faster, pussycat! Thrill! Thrill!” Then the girls intone, “Woah-oh, you broke my heart at the Funplex / Yes you did, yes you did”. These are the kinds of lines — silly, yet somehow charged with an edgy jolt of angst — that could have come from the B-52’s of 29 years ago. That’s good news, and very reassuring to longtime fans. Also reminiscent of the band’s past, and probably self-consciously alluding to it, are lyrics like, “Sky-high hive, you wind me tight / Sky-high hive in the ultraviolet night.” Later in this same song (“Ultraviolet”), Fred declares, “There’s a rest stop / Let’s hit the cheese pot.” Or maybe that’s “Let hit the G-spot” (my promo came without lyrics). Either way, the ladies rightly respond with, “Lovin’ it, lovin’ it / Woooo!”
Beneath this layer of familiarity, the music of Funplex is less like what we’ve come to expect from the B-52’s. Strickland was aiming to fuse “electronic dance music and early rock and roll.” The result is a sound that, for the most part, chugs away at a steady, mechanized clip. Coming from the B-52’s, this takes a little getting used to. After two or three decades of being accustomed to either the jagged, antsy rhythms of their early LPs, or the loose and swaying vibe of Cosmic Thing, their new four-to-the-floor approach is initially off-putting. However, after a few listens and some readjusted expectations, Funplex starts to make sense. It also starts to sound good. Later on the record, the lazily sexy “Deviant Ingredient”, and the wide-open “Too Much to Think About” return to a less rigidly structured, jammier feel. Ah, nostalgia.
The B-52’s do sound great in the more techno-centric soundscapes, too, though. “Love in the Year 3000” is one of Funplex‘s least organic tracks, but it’s a definite highlight. The majority, however, marry sequencing and rock with very fine results. Even the album’s weakest cuts — “Eyes Wide Open” and “Dancing Now”, perhaps — are still pretty darn good. Conversely, only a few songs are really great: “Funplex”, “Ultraviolet”, the brightly rocking “Hot Corner”, and “Juliet of the Spirits”, which floats as prettily on Kate and Cindy’s vocals as any song they’ve sung before.
Funplex is a very good album, and a solid pleasure from end to end. The first time you hear it, you’ll breathe a sigh of relief that the band didn’t embarrass themselves. The second time, it will start to grow on you. By round three, you’ll have become a fan of what will hopefully be a new era of music from the B-52’s. I’ve spent a fair amount of time at the Funplex lately, and I’m still not ready to leave.