Quick, name one really good pop act from Akron, Ohio!
Stumped? Try the five-member act Devo, whose brand of icy and clinical techno-pop yielded a brief top-40 stint with its 1980 hit "Whip It."However, probably unbeknownst to most of the record-buying public at large, the act has kept recording in that 10-year span . . . except for a four-year rest after 1984's disastrous "Shout."
Two new releases - one that compiles the band's earliest and previously unheard recordings and a second, the band's most positive-sounding effort to date - may pull them out of their relative obscurity. DEVO; "Hardcore, Vol. 1: 1974-1977"; produced by Devo (Ryko Analogue Records). * * *
Before avant-garde artist Brian Eno discovered Devo (including producing the band's groundbreaking debut, "Q. Are We Not Men? A. We Are Devo!") in 1978, the fledgling pop/rock band made "vintage basement four-track recordings," according to founder Mark Mothersbaugh.
The 15 tracks on the compilation manage to sample all facets of the band's early career, including the original independent-released singles versions of later underground hits "Jocko Homo," "Satisfaction" (a wicked cover of the Rolling Stones' classic) and "Mongoloid."
A bit surprisingly, this album manages to be as coherent and consistent as anything the band has released to date. Also surprising is how the band manages to sound just as relevant without the clutter prominent on later productions (especially those produced by Eno).
Consistent throughout is the band's skewed melodic and instrumental sense, which hinges on the band's "Devolution" philosophy.
The linchpin of this approach is "Jocko Homo," which contains such telltale Devo lines as "They tell us that we lost our tail/Evolving up from little snails/I say it's all just wind and sails/Are we not men?/We are Devo!"
This primitive early version of the song manages to capture Mothersbaugh's neurotic vocals better than the later vinyl version, and the same is true for Gerald Casale's "Mongoloid."
Miles better than either of those, though, is the brief "Stop Look and Listen" (which maybe should have been the band's trademark theme instead of "Jocko Homo") and the Talking Heads soundalike "I'm a Potato."
Though some might say the latter proves the Ohio spudboys' influence on other bands, remember that T.H. founder David Byrne had been performing for years before founding the band in 1977.
Nevertheless, the compilation does give some new insight into the much-neglected Devo movement.DEVO; "Smoothnoodlemaps"; produced by Devo (Enigma Records). * * 1/2
After taking four years to release their much-anticipated comeback album ("Total Devo") in 1988, the re-energized Devo has released one of the '80s best live albums (1989's "Now It Can Be Told: Devo Live") and a consistent, if not spectacular, new effort.
The album title refers to a Kurt Vonnegut quote about man's gray matter (i.e., brains) and, fittingly, the title is a bit ironic, as the band manages to outsmart itself a little.
Though Devo's newer sound is more light-hearted and warmer (straying into funk and syntho-pop realms) than earlier efforts, the band has been soft-pedaling its philosophy for more mainstream messages.
For example, the bland "Stuck in a Loop" is aptly titled, and "When We Do It" is about . . . well, you guessed it. The instrumentals for both are fairly competent, if not danceable.
"Post Post-Modern Man," the album's first single, updates the excruciating "If I Had A Hammer" successfully ("But I ain't got a hammer/And I ain't got a pencil/-And I ain't got a lasso/So I'm doing it the hard way/Like a post post-modern man").
"A Change Is Gonna Come," "Pink Jazz Trancers" and the band's cover of "Morning Dew" all manage to compensate for somewhat bland material with slightly odd, if not crisp, instrumentals.
The big winners surprisingly, though, are the at-first-unsettling "Jimmy" and the misleadingly titled "Devo Has Feelings Too." The first is an extremely snide wish for bad luck for a bad person, wrapped within a swirling syntho-funk pulse, while the latter is the most succinct statement of the band's pseudo-religious (since Mothersbaugh is a member of the pseudo-religion-to-end-all-pseudo-religions Church of the Subgenius) ideals for quite some time.
This album may put off a few Devo-tees (it did this critic for awhile, as did "Total Devo," which finally grew in his esteem), but it is rewarding, if you can just get through the soft spots.