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This Party Never Stops

The B-52s Return to Trash Your House

Deanna Staffo

By Raymond Cummings | Posted 4/16/2008

Even at the height of their 1980s popularity, the B-52s were consummate champions of the tackily outré, the four-eyed geeky, the gleefully sci-fi, the garishly John Waters. The band members were hard-partying, perpetually shimmying new-wave kids from Athens, Ga., and their singles promoted utopian art-deco weirdness and off-the-wall fun. Light years beyond experiential drags such as irony or embarrassment, they preached a wacky joy of being, of ecstatic hippie peace, of sexual liberation. Addled with cheesy '50s sound effects and searing synths, 1983's "Song for a Future Generation" set the tone nicely:

Wanna be the captain of the Enterprise
Wanna be the king of the Zulus
Let's meet and have a baby now!

Wanna be a daughter of Dracula
Wanna be the son of Frankenstein
Let's meet and have a baby now!

After founding guitarist Ricky Wilson died of AIDS in 1985, political and cultural critiques began to seep into their outsider pop--yet that sense of devil-may-care revelry never faded, even if their studio output dried up after 1992's bodacious Good Stuff.

Sixteen years and infinite wedding-reception "Love Shack" spins later, Funplex (Astralwerks) finds these merry hedonists--sassily savory sirens Cindy Wilson and Kate Pierson, queeny and proud howler Fred Schneider, and background hook factory Keith Strickland--back for another go. In the grand scheme of things, this isn't an album they really needed to cut, but the group's attempt to re-adapt its shtick for contemporary sensibilities doesn't fail that badly. Ultimately, though, it's just one more rowdy B-52s record--and what that means depends on you.

Of course, a lot of water's passed under the dance-floor bridge in the last 16 years. Electronica, electroclash, trip-hop, and ska arrived, peaked, and dropped off the radar screen in what felt like the blink of an eye. Waves and waves of dance-rocking and postpunkin' pretty boys pouted and preened on one magazine cover after another, spawning dozens of wannabes. DJs and synth-tweakers bred dance-music genres and subgenres like bunnies in heat until such divisions were all but meaningless. And LCD Soundsystem won the 2007 Idolator Pop Critics Poll.

The pop-music landscape the B-52s seek to reclaim is both more fragile and ghettoized than the one they left, and there's no guarantee that the masses--for whom "geek" is now often a positive means of self-identification--will embrace a wacky quartet of fiftysomethings bearing good vibes, icky double entendres, and stage costumes so loud they could deafen Elton John.

The B-52s must've arrived at the same conclusion themselves, because for Funplex they didn't ring erstwhile production team Don Was and Nile Rodgers but brought in Steve Osborne instead. Osborne's long, eclectic résumé--he's been behind the boards for recordings by the Happy Mondays, U2, KT Tunstall, Doves, and Suede, not to mention New Order's own 2001 comeback album--suggests that the group sought a more contemporary perspective. And while the traditional B-52s' outrageousness and luscious harmonies remain intact on Funplex, it's also the sleekest, hardest record they've ever made: The bass lines are noticeably bouncier and more pronounced, keyboard runs are razor-sharp, and the humid atmospheric frills that were all over lurid Good Stuff are dialed way, way back. Here and there, they even nick a few moves from insouciant young bands half their age.

Opener and lead single "Pump" kicks things off with strobe-lit snapshots of dance-floor lust set to lean, mean bass synths, pounding drums, handclaps, and taut guitar skronk. The track is like an eternally cracking whip, writhing forth with a violent amphetamine urgency. "I look at you, and I'm ready to pop/ Luminous heartthrob, ready to jump," Wilson claims, adopting a robotic Heidi Klum monotone that fits the milieu if not the killing pace. Later on, Schneider barks, "Hard Kiss! Love Chain!," as if those phrases constituted a passenger-side "oh shit bar" in a bright-green Chevy careening over an embankment.

So: Party on, even if that's as much craziness as the B-52s allow themselves here. Surf-country barnburner "Hot Corner" is both more trad-rock organic and more specific about what's expected of listeners, with Wilson and Pierson stutter-yelp harmonizing over hopscotch licks--"I, I, I'm lookin' for some fun"--while Schneider engages in some hep dance-call holler: "`Do a white hot shimmy in a lurex gown!/ Twist the Tornado and the Lasso!'"

Pierson/Wilson duet showcase "Juliet of the Spirits" pulls the neat cannibalization hat trick of simultaneously ripping off the Killers ripping off U2 and ripping off the Strokes ripping off Blondie. Click track-like drumbeats and agile, fat bass lines shore up shuffled, stutter-step synths and shimmering waves of ethereal ice tones that could either be keyboards or tweaked guitars. Meanwhile, the ladies urge the titular vixen to embrace her randy sensuality, their entreaties and wordless ad libs multitracked into something monolithic and larger than life.

The throwback artificiality of "Spirits" isn't without its allure, but it's certainly possible to forget whom you're listening to. "Eyes Wide Open" is undeniably DFA-derived. There are cowbells. There are fake, clipped disco guitar, staccato drumbeats, cropped high-hats, and a monotonous bass line. There are come-hither leers and scene-setting jabberwocky that might have been more welcoming in a less airtight context--when Schneider intones, "One on one, take a little bite/ What I got you never had/ One on one, no use to fight/ Love's my thing, so good it's bad," the effect is less bawdy than mirthless.

The catchy title track finds the band much closer to its absurdist home turf, mixing and matching shopping-mall universalities and countercultural signifiers into a Dada-pop consumerist critique hitched to Strickland's bulldozing central riff. "I'm a pleasure seeker, shopping for a new distraction/ I'm a pleasure seeker, movin' to the Muzak," Pierson begins with starry-eyed gusto. Soon enough, Wilson accuses somebody of kicking her heart "up and down the escalator," and Schneider name-checks Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill!, envisioning "candelabras in a Wonderbra" and trying to extinguish his flaming wallet as hands clap and frenzied keyboards hit panic mode.

Funplex can get predictable at points; for instance, one needn't listen to "Love in the Year 3000" to get the general Jetsons-gone-XXX gist. Yet the same can be said about any B-52s album you care to name (sans Cosmic Thing); all these aging, wild children really needed to glean from the Funplex sessions were a handful of surefire jams for the next best-of and their never-ending tour trail.

Party-hearty closer "Keep This Party Going"--which nicks cadences and melodic elements from Dead or Alive's "You Spin Me Round (Like a Record)"--insists that the B-52s aren't ready to call it a night just yet. As his co-vocalists scream "party" again and again as if it's a concept they've just stumbled upon, Schneider shouts out a hypothetical international itinerary: "Detroit! Sydney! Boston! Paris! Atlanta! Berlin! Madrid! Frisco! Milan! New York City! Tokyo! L.A.! Key West!" A bit 2004 Howard Dean meltdown? Sure, but considering the source, it's par for the course. Let's just hope Funplex is enough to bring in new converts.

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