A few weeks ago I received a copy of the new B-52s album, Funplex. A band I've been fond of for many years, I was weary of trying to stretch my love too thin, or to have a late career misstep affect my adoration for nearly all of their early and mid period work. The cover offered little solace; the four remaining members looked almost embalmed, and oddly younger than they did in the late 70's. A friend had mentioned hearing the first single, the title track, on the radio. Reports were that it was great, true to form and catchy. I had yet to hear a single note of the album.
What drew me to the B-52s in the first place was Ricky Wilson, who crafted the early songs (along with drummer Keith Strickland) and whose guitar playing is sorely under appreciated. Part Ventures, part post-Punk angularity, almost like sped up Chuck Berry, I don't know if Wilson ever played a wrong or frivolous note.
There are few bands who have no clear predecessor; and though they may be influential, no one is quite capable of succeeding them either. Even if one were attempting to, it would be difficult to emulate the B-52s. Fred Schneider, for instance, is inimitable. His voice cuts through the music, sometimes adding to, but also, on occasion, destroying the melody—like a commentator or even an interloper. The dynamic between his vocals, and those of Cindy Wilson's and Kate Pierson's keep the music in a perpetual struggle of harmony and discord. Though the songs have a pop sensibility and plenty of celebratory explosions, there is also an element of suspense. Whether it is a beautiful melody on the verge of imploding or a taut guitar line giving way to fluidity, it is tension that sets the B-52s apart.
Watch the B-52s lip syncing "My Own Private Idaho."
So, I really wanted to embrace the latest effort by the B-52s; they were not merely rehashing the past but instead writing their first new material in sixteen years. Luckily, it was not difficult to enjoy Funplex. The opening riff of "Pump" was written by Strickland—who moved from drums to guitar after Ricky Wilson passed away—and it is a clear homage not only to where the B-52s have been but to Wilson himself. The riff is then engulfed by the rest of the band, by vocals, drums, and that tireless energy and hopefulness that seems to magically propel all of their songs. The voices of Kate Pierson and Cindy Wilson sound amazing, sometimes interchangeable, sometimes the twang and ache of Wilson more pronounced. The album's production is fresh but not slick, the grittiness not lost, the chemistry still palpable and alive.
Check out the video for the first single from Funplex.
In what often feels like a constant search for something new to love—from gadgets to trends to music—it is always nice for something you already love to surprise you; for it to feel, and to sound, both new and old at the same time.
I'd love to hear your thoughts on the B-52s, REM, or any band who are still making records long after you thought they would have ceased to do so. Should they stop while they are ahead? Or have you been pleasantly surprised or able to view the new material with fresh ears?