Tuesday, May 12, 2009

May 12: Devo, "Duty Now For The Future"

Artist: Devo
Album: Duty Now For The Future
Year: 1979
Label: Warner Bros.

There was a time, long ago, when Northeast Ohio, particularly the city of Akron, was a hotbed of music. Bands like Zero Defex, The Pretenders (or at least Chrissy Hynde), and Pere Ubu were re-writing the rules of rock music and garnering great success in the process. Along with these artists were one of the most brilliantly original bands that the world has ever seen: Devo. Though they are certainly best known for their 1980 mega-single, “Whip It,” the song is not very representative of their overall body of work. Mixing pop, punk, and well, pure madness, Devo possesses an unrivaled musical catalog. A perfect representation of everything that makes Devo great, and arguably their best album, is their 1979 release, Duty Now For The Future.

Part Talking Heads, part Bad Brains, and part something indescribable, Devo remain one of the most amazingly unique bands in history. Definitely delving into what one might consider “nerd rock,” the band have that geeky sound, yet they are rockers through and through. Setting it apart from their debut, Devo move their trademark synthesizers to the forefront of the music on Duty Now For The Future. Making the synth more prominent began the shift that would remain for the rest of Devo’s career. The band enters into strangely cheerful, if not somewhat eerie territory on oddball track, “The Day My Baby Gave Me A Surprise.” The band also shows off nothings short of pure genius on the quirky, “Smart Patrol/Mr. DNA.” It is as close to organized “rock” as Devo gets, and it is easily one of the finest tracks the band has ever recorded.

The music of Devo rewrote the rules of music each time they released an album, and it is absolutely the case on Duty Now For The Future. If you look past the sound bytes and synthesizers, Devo is very much a “standard” guitar & drums type of rock band. However, it is their addition and use of these new “technologies” that makes Devo the band that they are. Pioneering a wide range of approaches to the still-new synthesizer, much of the music of Devo has a bit of “80’s charm.” However, the synthesizer included, the music itself is far more aggressive in nature than most of their counterparts, and it is this pace and intensity that makes Devo great. The basswork of Gerald Casale is absolutely brilliant, switching keys and tempos, as is highlighted on “S.I.B. (Swelling Itching Brain).” The band even takes a moment to put their own spin on the classic, “Secret Agent Man.”

The vocals on Duty Now For the Future, delivered by Mark Mothersbaugh, are very reminiscent of a higher pitched David Byrne. Singing in a rather halting, near spoken, smart manner, the vocals pair perfectly with the jarring music in the background. The diversity in subject matter is so varied that it almost becomes lost within the perfectly measured, consistent manner in which Mothersbaugh delivers. Slyly critiquing things like fascism with a playful, almost silly sound, “Triumph Of The Will” is an absolute masterpiece. One of the most amazing things about this song is that, even though it seems mocking, the song itself sets no clear “opinion” on the subject. From serious philosophical issues to pure idiocy, Duty Now For The Future has songs that truly represent everything that makes Devo the amazing band they are.

Devo will forever remain one of the most talented, yet strange bands that the world has ever seen. With their trademark “geek” rock and unmistakable vocals, they pushed the boundaries of music throughout their entire career. Taking the “standard” band configuration and pushing the synthesizer to the front, they redefined what could be considered rock music. Jerky, almost space-age sounds, combined with lyrical delivery to match, Devo often appears as a more modern version of the Talking Heads. Though their entire catalog is nothing short of brilliant, their 1979 release, Duty Now For the Future is one of their finest recordings and serves as a foreshadowing of the amazing things the band would do later in their career.

Standout tracks: “Blockhead,” “S.I.B. (Swelling Itching Brain),” and “Smart Patrol/Mr. DNA.”

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