Tuesday, June 29, 2010

June 29: The B-52's, "Cosmic Thing"

Artist: The B-52's
Song: "Cosmic Thing"
Album: Cosmic Thing
Year: 1989

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Though it in many ways makes very little sense, the history of recorded music has proven that there are perhaps no two elements that are further apart than that of "art rock" and "pop rock."  For whatever reason, it seems that if a band that makes very unique, "artsy" music, if they find even the least bit of success, it somehow compromises their vision, and they lose a majority of their "street cred."  While this illogical reality has persisted for decades, there is one group that managed, at least for a bit of time, to completely defy this norm, and were able to successfully keep one foot in their distinct musical approach, whilst simultaneously making hit songs.  Then again, perhaps this was the case all along, and it is this ability that is the true genius of the Athens, Georgia quartet known as The B-52's.  After releasing a pair of critically acclaimed records that seemed to define the "new wave" sound as much as defy it, the group found themselves in a rather dark space, suffering from both the loss of a band member, as well as a seeming inability to recapture the magic that made their first two records to fantastic.  However, one of the other things that the history of music has proven is that adversity is often what leads to massive breakthroughs for bands and is clearly one of the central elements in spurring new creativity.  There is perhaps no album that better defines the re-awakening of a band as well as the sheer joy of The B-52's than their 1989 smash, Cosmic Thing, and it is the title track that defines the group perfectly and remains one of the most fantastic songs ever recorded.

As an album opener, there are few that better lay out the mood that perseveres throughout the record as "Cosmic Thing," and there are also few other songs that are so overwhelmingly upbeat.  It is this latter characteristic that was in many ways missing from the groups' previous two records and was certainly much of the "magic" that defined their debut.  The uniquely retro, yet edgy sound that they had perfected was once again brilliantly crafted here, and it is largely due to the fantastic production from the team of Don Was and Nile Rodgers.  The duo were able to update the groups' sound without sacrificing their uncommon musical approach, and overall, Cosmic Thing is a much cleaner and better focused album than any other in the catalog of The B-52's.  The moment the song kicks in, the group is already in top gear, bouncing across the song with one of the most irresistible grooves of the entire record.  The heavy pop sound is immediately present, and the song strikes the perfect balance between the one-of-a-kind musical approach that the group had displayed their entire career and a mood and sound that is everything that makes a pop song memorable.  From the high-speed, layered percussion to the almost spacey guitar progressions, to the scattered keyboard fills, the band seems to pull as much influence from the likes of Blondie and Talking Heads as they do from more experimental groups like Captain Beefheart.  This ability to create a mainstream sound that is in reality so strange is what makes The B-52's so memorable, and it is brilliantly displayed on "Cosmic Thing."

Yet as fantastic as the music of The B-52's was across the Cosmic Thing record, there is perhaps no element that better defines the group than their consistently stunning vocal work.  Standing as one of the few groups in history that can make claim to three separate singers capable of taking lead vocals, it allows the group to have so many different musical approaches that this aspect alone makes them one of the most unique groups to ever record.  However, while they are able to pass around lead vocals, it is hard to argue that the voice that defined the group was that of Fred Schneider, and everything that makes his voice so memorable can be found on "Cosmic Thing."  The almost sarcastic, forcefully, yet playful spoken delivery found here plays a perfect compliment to the music spinning around him, and the gorgeous harmonies from Kate Pierson and Cindy Wilson stand as some of the finest in the groups' long history.  As is the case on "Cosmic Thing," it is often the manner in which these two sounds clash together that makes the songs of The B-52's so fantastic, and it is also this beautifully simple sound that makes listeners unable to NOT sing along.  Furthermore, the bands' lyrics are often as fun, if not nonsensical, as the signing, and this is also true in the case of "Cosmic Thing."  The song follows the long lyrical tradition of The B-52's as it is speaks of space travel, aliens, and parties, which the group has somehow made "logical" throughout their history.  Bringing it all together, Schneider sings, "...while cruising through the ionosphere, I saw these alien beings, everywhere I went up there, they were shakin' their alien things..."  He later demands the listener to "...shake your honey buns!" and it is these ecstatic moments that make "Cosmic Thing" such a sensational musical experience.

The unparalleled level of energy, along with the equally impressive blend of musical experimentation and vocal prowess is the combination that made the music of The B-52's some of the most uniquely delightful of the late 1970's and 1980's.  Never failing to seek out new ways in which to deploy their strangely retro yet ultra "cool" sound, it was their work with the Was/Rodgers production team that brought them their greatest success, and many of the songs made during this period have endured the test of time and remain radio staples to this day.  Though there are other songs on Cosmic Thing that were more commercially successful, it is the albums' title track that best defines the overall sound of the album as well as the extraordinary talent that lived within each member of the group.  From the soaring harmonies of Pierson and Wilson to the geek-chic delivery of Schneider to the fantastic guitar work of Keith Strickland, everything comes together perfectly on "Cosmic Thing," and the song is a true explosion of musical pleasure.  This mood of pure enjoyment cannot be denied, and the fact that the song retains this quality after countless listenings and more than two decades proves just how uniquely extraordinary a creation the group achieved with this song.  Though it has a massive "pop sensibility" within both the music and vocals, The B-52's manage to also keep their "artsy" feel on "Cosmic Thing," as the lyrics are just as strange as any other they penned, and the musical style is still very reflective of even their earliest songs.  With all of these elements working simultaneously, The B-52's created true "musical magic" throughout their entire 1989 album, Cosmic Thing, and there is no better song on the album that defines the extraordinary sound and talent within the group than the title track.

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