Devolution Working Man Blues
Devo Makes a Long-Overdue Return

Next week, I am going to the Cornerstone Festival for the third time.

Cornerstone is billed as a Christian rock extravaganza, but for me, it’s the only place to see some of my favorite musicians play. The main stage this year sports Jesus-poppers like TobyMac, Skillet, Phil Joel and David Crowder, which is why I plan to steer clear completely. But on the smaller stages, I’ll get to see the Lost Dogs, Over the Rhine, Paper Route, Eisley, Mike Roe, Terry Taylor, Derri Daugherty, Iona, and a little band called the Choir – a band that, incidentally, hasn’t played live in years.

I’m also rooming with my friend Jeff Elbel, who runs the gallery stage, and plays Wednesday with his band Ping. I expect this will be a hot, dusty, grand old time. I plan to blog my Cornerstone experience, and use those blogs as the basis for the July 7 column. Just a heads-up that your regularly-scheduled music reviews will be taking a week off.

So we’d better get as many as we can in this week and next. I’m ready to go if you are. Bonus points, by the way, for anyone who catches the reference in the column/chapter titles. And now, oh no, it’s Devo…

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It’s been 20 years since the last Devo album.

I’m going to let that sink in for a moment. 20 years. In that time, Mark Mothersbaugh has established himself as a first-rate film score composer, and Gerald Casale has become a music video director, when he’s not moonlighting as Jihad Jerry. Also in that time, electronic music has exploded into its own widespread subculture, and it all owes a huge debt to the thumping beats and pulsing synthesizers of Devo.

Still, many wrote Devo off as a novelty act. Granted, the video for “Whip It” is funny, but there’s a satirical Swiftian heart beating beneath those plastic red hats. Society, Mothersbaugh and Casale said with all sincerity, has been going backwards – devolving, if you will – and one would be hard-pressed to argue that it hasn’t continued to slide towards the abyss in the 20 years since Smooth Noodle Maps. Those who only heard the hits didn’t quite get how angry a band Devo was, and is.

I’m not sure what external forces combined to convince this quintet to reunite. But the resulting album, Something for Everybody, melts those 20 years right away. It sounds like no time has passed at all. Devo is just as wry, just as dark, just as sarcastic and danceable and goofy and full-on awesome as ever. The four old-time members of Devo (Mark and Bob Mothersbaugh, Gerald and Bob Casale) are all around 60 – they’ve also recruited 37-year-old drummer Josh Freese – but you’d never guess their ages from the dynamism on display here.

I admit I was worried. I’ve been reading about the album for some time, and it seemed to me like the band was a little too enamored of its marketing concept – they’ve been calling themselves Devo Inc., and they hired focus groups to choose virtually every aspect of the album, from the cover art to the style of jumpsuits the band wears to the order of the tracks themselves. I understood where they were going with it – it’s clearly a comment on the image-conscious, pre-packaged pop universe of the 21st Century – but the concept threatened to overwhelm the music.

That’s why I was glad to see the band actually ignore the advice of its focus group, at least when it came to which songs were included on Something for Everybody. The panel was presented with 16 songs, and asked to choose which 12 should be on the final record. But when it came down to it, the band felt like several of its tunes were under-valued, and included them anyway, in the place of others that the focus group selected. This, to me, is heartening – Something for Everybody isn’t just a commentary, it’s a great album in its own right, and the band felt strongly enough about its own work to scrap an interesting experiment.

Not that the nine songs here selected by the focus group are inferior. Not at all. The record opens with “Fresh,” a song that could have landed on Freedom of Choice without any problem, and continues with “What We Do,” an absolute classic. Over an insistent beat and a throbbing bass line, Mark Mothersbaugh announces that “what we do is what we do, it’s all the same, there’s nothing new.” He’s talking both about his band and about modern society – this is a song with the repeated refrain “Eating and breathing and pumping gas, cheeseburger cheeseburger do it again,” after all. There’s a silliness to this song, but a mechanical, lockstep quality that’s scary at the same time.

This album moves like a bullet, throwing one three-minute wonder after another at you, each one with a hip-shaking beat. You can tell they’ve been working on this thing for a while – “Don’t Shoot (I’m a Man)” is built around a “don’t tase me, bro” reference, after all – and much of that studio time has clearly been used to tighten things up to a ridiculous extreme. These songs are all exactly as long as they have to be, and there’s nothing extraneous. “Mind Games” is a condemnation of relationships that toes a sexist line with a mischievous grin, while “Later is Now” is a glorious call-to-arms synth-swirl anthem.

But what of the songs Devo would not let hit the cutting room floor? It’s hard to defend the celeb-mocking “Cameo” as a masterpiece, but the final two tracks, both rejected by the focus group, may be the best on the album. “No Place Like Home” begins with a sparse piano, and spins a striking melody over an ever-expanding synth arrangement. And closer “March On” is pretty much the perfect Devo song, a dark pop number about hoping for the best, but preparing for the worst. The melody on this one is superb, dropping the curtain on a sublime note.

It’s hard for me to believe that it’s been two decades since I last heard new Devo, but Something for Everybody is like time travel, like ducking into the Wayback Machine for half an hour. I wish the world had moved beyond the need for a band like Devo, but sadly, the same satire works perfectly in 2010 as it did in 1980. Mark Mothersbaugh may believe there’s no place like home to return to, but the members of Devo sound comfortable, confident and at the peak of their powers here. It’s like an old jumpsuit, or flower pot hat – you don’t think they’ll fit, but as it turns out, they’re just right.

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Working Man

It’s striking to me just how similar the Gaslight Anthem is to the Hold Steady.

Both bands have adopted Bruce Springsteen’s core sound – working-class stories related over simple chords, with full-throated emotion – and made it louder. Both bands make it very difficult to dislike them, since the rah-rah-rah shout-along choruses and ringing guitar chords work, dammit, and always have. I nod my head and occasionally pump my fist along when either band is playing, even if I don’t particularly like the songs.

Here’s the difference – the Hold Steady is further along in its career, and has already passed the point where repeating a simple sound keeps working. That’s why the last two Hold Steady albums have been departures (and have been less successful). The Gaslight Anthem isn’t there yet – they’ve just put out their third album, American Slang, and it’s another short, sharp burst of Springsteen-style minimum-wage blue-jean rock. Ten songs, none of them particularly different from one another, but all of them reaching for the same spark, the same sense of all being in this together, fighting for our lives against the man.

The Jersey quartet (of course they’re from Jersey) never falters on this record. In Hold Steady terms, this is their Boys and Girls in America, the one on which they perfect the sound they’ve been reaching for. There’s an appealing E Street shuffle to “The Diamond Church Street Choir,” a bowl-you-over energy to “Stay Lucky,” and a near-spiritual heft to subtle closer “We Did It When We Were Young.” It’s difficult for me to ascribe authenticity to something that is trying this hard to seem authentic, but this album is what the Gaslight Anthem has always wanted to sound like.

And to my mind, this is the last album like this they get to make before that sound turns stale. They flirt with their own sell-by date here and there on American Slang, making almost comical over-use of the same chord progressions, and throwing “woah-oh” into as many choruses as they can. It’s clear this band has given its all to this album – just listen to the mini-epic “The Queen of Lower Chelsea” – but it’s also clear that this is it, the pinnacle.

From here, the Gaslight Anthem is either going to release the same album over and over, like a Boss-loving Bad Religion, or they’re going to change up what they do, like the Hold Steady. The first is the safest possible road to stagnation and irrelevance, the second a risky proposition that may work out for them, but may not. (See above re: Hold Steady.) Either way, if you really like what the Gaslight Anthem is doing – and sometimes, when no one’s looking, I really do – then you’d better enjoy American Slang. It may be the last time you hear its like from this band again.

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My aforementioned friend Jeff Elbel thinks the Heartbreakers are the best band in America. It’s hard to argue, honestly – they’re a pretty amazing combo, particularly mainstays Mike Campbell and Benmont Tench. Tom Petty gets all the ink, but his backing band is simply awesome.

Petty and the Heartbreakers’ new album, Mojo, seems specifically designed to give the band its due. It’s a long, jammy, bluesy workout that showcases just how down and dirty the Heartbreakers can get. Petty’s been writing effortless pop hits for so long now that if you’ve decided to make this your first Heartbreakers record, you’re probably in for a shock. There’s nothing like “Free Fallin” or “Refugee” here at all. Instead, Petty and his band have taken up the spirit of last year’s dynamic live box set and simply rocked out.

You’ll know something’s different from the first track, “Jefferson Jericho Blues,” a simple tune based on a repeated guitar-harmonica riff. Given its bluesy blueprint, Mojo is surprisingly diverse, although that’s not always in its favor – some of this sounds like Robert Johnson, some like Led Zeppelin, and an awful lot of it like latter-day Eric Clapton. I can absolutely imagine Slowhand taking a crack at “Running Man’s Bible,” an organ-fueled shuffle that shows off Campbell’s lead guitar. But Petty’s road-worn voice works well with this material, and the band definitely makes the most of it.

Some of Mojo is surprising. “I Should Have Known It” is the most kickass rocker Petty’s given us in years, based around an inexorable riff. (It’s clearly his Jimmy Page moment.) “U.S. 41” sounds like it was recorded on a front porch in Alabama, and “Takin’ My Time” is probably the dirtiest blues of the lot, a slow crawl that explodes in a rush of lead guitar and harmonica. Some of it is less successful, of course, like middling ballad “No Reason to Cry” and embarrassing pro-pot reggae slog “Don’t Pull Me Over.”

But the most surprising thing about Mojo is that, given 15 tries, Petty did not turn out one extraordinary song this time out. The album is based on vibe and chops, not melody, and as such, it kind of slides by without sticking. The Heartbreakers are unassailably great, and the best moments of Mojo find them showing off with remarkable power. I just wish they could have kept that live atmosphere, that grubby feel, without sacrificing the great songs.

But even so, if you’re on the fence about the Heartbreakers as a band, you really should hear this. Nothing here will return Tom Petty to the charts, but that’s hardly the point this time out. This is about the band, and they rise to the occasion. Mojo is a workout – 65 minutes and change – but it’s further evidence for Jeff’s theory. Best band in America? At times on this messy, scattered, strange and bluesy record, I believe it.

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This last bit is for Bob Slate, who, in his own sarcastic way, has been a big supporter of this column for pretty much its whole run. Slate asked me to put the top 20 of the decade list in one convenient place for him, so here it is. If you were in a coma for the last 10 years, just buy these 20 CDs and you’ll be all caught up with the good stuff.

20. Bruce Cockburn, You’ve Never Seen Everything.
19. Vampire Weekend.
18. Over the Rhine, Ohio.
17. The Choir, O How the Mighty Have Fallen.
16. Aqualung, Memory Man.
15. Silverchair, Young Modern.
14. The Decemberists, The Hazards of Love.
13. Mutemath.
12. Daniel Amos, Mr. Buechner’s Dream.
11. Duncan Sheik, Phantom Moon.
10. Aimee Mann, The Forgotten Arm.
9. Ben Folds, Rockin’ the Suburbs.
8. Joanna Newsom, Ys.
7. Keane, Under the Iron Sea.
6. Fleet Foxes.
5. Death Cab for Cutie, Plans.
4. Wilco, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.
3. Marillion, Marbles.
2. Rufus Wainwright, Want.
1. Sufjan Stevens, Illinois.

Sorry, Slate, no Steely Dan on the list. Hope you like it anyway.

Next week, more new music. Lots to choose from, too, like Eminem, the Chemical Brothers, Kele, Suzanne Vega, Sarah McLachlan, Foals, Pain of Salvation, Cowboy Junkies, and… yeah. Lots. Y’all come back now, y’hear?

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See you in line Tuesday morning.