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The Eternal Teenagers
Old new wavers the B-52s still kick sass
The B-52s recently released an album called Funplex, and by industry standards, it should suck.
For starters, the Athens, Georgia-birthed quartet hadn't issued a new full-length in 16 years, which is usually a sign a band have run out of gas. To pass the time between new-material albums, the group—guitarist Keith Strickland and singers Fred Schneider, Cindy Wilson (who was absent from 1992's Good Stuff) and Kate Pierson—put out two greatest-hits packages, 2002's Nude on the Moon: The B-52s Anthology and 1998's Time Capsule: Songs for a Future Generation. Add numerous tours on which the band served as an oldies act playing hits such as "Rock Lobster," "Planet Claire," "Private Idaho" and "Love Shack," and you've got the markings of an outfit desperate to pay their rent. But Wilson says these gigs helped the B-52s to write new material.
"We have been a group," Wilson asserts. "It's not like we came out of thin air, so our voices are still together. Also, we're really quite eccentric. That doesn't go away."
Record-company hype and publicist-driven bios pronounce Funplex as some sort of a return to the past by looking forward. For most artists, this kind of rhetoric spells disaster. As much as musicians hate to admit it, timeliness is as important to a songwriter as it is to journalism. What worked in 1978 usually doesn't sound as great in 2008. This is where big labels with too much money come in. They throw cash at underperforming new albums by classic artists and claim this fresh material as essential listening, when in reality, it's nothing more than an attempt at staying relevant in the eyes of young people who couldn't give two shits about dinosaur bands from their strange aunt's record collection.
But here's the crazy part: Funplex doesn't suck. In fact, it doesn't even come close to sucking. The 11-song disc is as solid as anything the B-52s have done in their 30-year existence. This album actually sounds like a modern version of the quintessential quirkiness that distinguishes the B-52s. Each track features a highly danceable rhythm punctuated by spacey electronics, with Strickland's fuzzy guitar adding just the right amount of grit for a sound that deftly incorporates disco and rock elements.
"Critics were ready to rip us a new one," Wilson says. "It's just not supposed to happen. We're all in our 50s and hadn't been around, but we surprised a lot of people. We took our time, and you can tell we did good work and were having a good time."
The B-52s have always been about the unique vocal hybrid of Schneider, Pierson and Wilson. And with a record littered with sexual innuendo, it's difficult to not pay attention to the trio as the song "Ultraviolet" announces, "Spread your wild seed on fertile ground," "Tell your skirt to take a hike" and "There's a rest stop/Let's hit the G-spot," while the futuristic "Love in the Year 3000" informs listeners of all the new ways humans will find pleasure thanks to "robots-bootybots-erotobots" and "Tentative tentacles/Are grabbin' me/We're makin' space love/In zero gravity." Previous B-52s records found the foursome working individually, but Wilson says the strength of Funplex comes from the members' decision to work as a unit.
"We wanted to celebrate our collaboration," Wilson says. "That's what makes it original. It's a democratic process. Everyone has a chance to write melody, harmony and lyrics. It's like jamming, but with voices. We sift through all the stuff and hone in on what catches our ears."
After spinning Funplex a few times, it becomes clear the album's cover photograph might contain a hidden metaphor about being pleasantly surprised, although the band probably don't know it. People approaching the age when they get cheaper admission to movie theaters usually don't look as good as the B-52s do, but bands entering their third decade aren't known for releasing interesting new material. The secret, Wilson says, is staying active.
"Having music in your life is really youthful," Wilson says. "We have joy, and we're putting it out there. We all think we're 13 years old."