Thursday, April 19, 2012

The B-52's (1979)

(Warner Bros.)


Like your train's ready to collide with it, the opening notes chime away and then stomp a bit while Cindy Wilson begins her swinging stride with that simple "remember?" and the phenomenal, alert and immediate crush of it is magnified all the more by the knowledge of what's coming, of which the song, "Dance This Mess Around," provides not even a hint. Wilson shows little patience with pleading for your cooperation, instead insisting and chiding and demanding in the listless, independent howl that launched Kate Bush, Björk, Merrill Garbus, and need we go on: "WHY DON'T YA DANCE WITH MEEE?" Fred Schneider shows up to egg her on with jokes and surreal pronouncements about how "they do all sixteen dances," but Cindy's is the total performance. Kitsch this and kitsch that, and she does of course proceed to help Schneider with those "yeahyeahyeahyeahyeahyeahs" and conjure up wacky names for the sixteen dances in question -- but the enduring, lasting reality of this moment is its completely unironic celebration of a female identity as undiluted, undisguised, unmanipulated. Its cumulative impact could make you cry.

If you weren't too busy dancing, that is, which you are. Voice of experience: this record was a greater comfort to me than a thousand Nick Drakes in a state of grief some years ago, and I remember thinking exactly: "How can I be sad when this music exists in the world?" Not just when it's playing, when it is possible. The closest analogy might be a Gene Kelly musical; there's something that heavy and life-affirming in these oddball grooves. And filmic influences permeate, of course, starting with the melodramatic Peter Gunn interpolation in the overpowering new wave dance opener "Planet Claire," a genuinely otherworldly creation that sets the stage with joyous curiosity.

In short, it's an empowering album, and the first half particularly is the sort of four-cut run that makes you believe again: "Planet Claire" into "52 Girls" into "Dance This Mess Around" into "Rock Lobster" is pretty much as good as the pop album gets for such a stretch, and to have it all dressed up with this sly, unabashed Southernness and, again, empowering femininity and, yes, adventurous / ambiguous sexuality, is something that flies far beyond art-student bohemian retrotainment. "52 Girls" is a classic, for instance, wholly separate from any such concern despite its wry pop-culturalist lyric; it's the melodies, the hook, the bottomless unexpected turns the guitar line makes, the shoegaze-predicting soar of the vocals.

Something as simple as individuality and assertiveness can, at a level this basic, form the guts of art. "52 Girls" is expressive enough, but the willful surrealist play throughout, borrowed as it is from the terminally underappreciated Yoko Ono, could've proven some kind of massive consolation to a certain sort of teenager, the same as that "WHY DON'T YOU DANCE WITH ME?" Fred, Cindy, and the iron-voiced Kate Piersen wind their way gleefully through deeper cuts like "There's a Moon in the Sky (Called the Moon)" and the greatly amusing "6060-842" with inexhaustible showmanship and enthusiasm; even the Spector groups were positioned behind a haze of constant threat. This is people doing something, doing it for them and for you.

The visceral clash of that power and the surface-level kitsch peaks and explodes certainly on the grand, unedited "Rock Lobster," which prattles on for seven minutes nearly with an increasingly unstructured chutzpah that often threatens to lose track of its own disco thrust -- especially when the three vocalists begin to rattle off the names and sounds of "a dogfish / chased by a catfish" and of course Schneider's all-time classic "There they saw... a rock / It wasn't a rock."

Guitarist Ricky Wilson is the backbone and voice of this extraordinary band at this point in their career, making them surprisingly closer in this regard to fellow new wave stalwarts like Blondie and Television instead of the equally dance-infected, genre-defying Talking Heads, who were driven almost wholly by their rhythm section. Wilson's loss would prove catastrophic for this band, but his consistent incisiveness and sense of fun as a guitarist infuses the first four B-52's LPs with a charismatic voice and firepower. The dynamic of the B-52's in their early years is a wonder to revel in, frankly; the only analogy I can think of that seems so rich in its multigendered, positive communal drift is the Fugees, and they lack the familial unity here.

Yeah, the second half of this LP is a huge dropoff from the first, but by then you're so knocked over with giddiness you'll barely even notice, and "Hero Worship" and "Lava" keep the fire burning well enough; it's a party with a built-in hangover. You'll visit both for the rest of your life.

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