- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 25, 2008




The new-wave sensation the B-52s came out of Athens, Ga., in the late 1970s before the sleepy college town was known as an incubator for innovative alternative rock bands. The group became the toast of New York on the strength of successful gigs at legendary music venues including Max’s Kansas City and CBGB, both now defunct.

The band’s four remaining members are all in their 50s, and their place in pop history is secure thanks to rollicking hits such as “Rock Lobster” and “Love Shack.” “Funplex,” their first studio album in 16 years, appears to be premised on the idea that they need new material to keep touring or else become a mere nostalgia act.

But of course, the B-52s were a nostalgia act from the very beginning, marrying rockabilly beats and surf guitar riffs to a flamboyantly retro sartorial sensibility. They caught fire in the late 1970s because of their exuberant style and their emphasis on fun, uncomplicated and danceable music.

Their new album retains this approach and even offers a few new wrinkles. Guitarist and songwriter Keith Strickland features more electronic keyboard and synthesizer on “Funplex” than on past B-52s albums.

The spirit of the B-52s is in evidence, but age has taken its toll. Fred Schneider’s giddy and deranged vocal style is a bit diminished by age. Where he once declaimed with manic authority, he now sounds a bit like Paul Lynde calling a square dance. The once-effortless vocals of singers Kate Pierson and Cindy Wilson have become somewhat pinched and strained.

There are some real turkeys on this album, but rather than being unlistenable, they retain a bit of the campy fun that characterizes the entire B-52s catalog. The silliest of these is “Love in the Year 3000,” a bounding dance track that includes the line, “Tentative tentacles/ Are grabbin’ me/ We’re makin’ space love/ In zero gravity.”

The B-52s seem to take into account a lot of music that has been made since the band last hit the charts. Mr. Strickland adds more grunge and distortion to his guitar mix than on previous albums. A few of the tracks, including the opening songs “Pump” and “Hot Corner,” have a bit of the flavor of post-punk bands that flourished after the B-52s faded into the classic rock mix.

It’s a testament to the band’s staying power that it has survived long enough to draw inspiration from bands and whole genres that the B52s themselves influenced.

On “Eyes Wide Open,” Miss Pierson sings, “I don’t wanna clash/I don’t wanna rehash the past.” Though there is a bit of rehash here, there are a few worthy tracks as well. “Juliet of the Spirits” is a moody, smoldering girl-girl duet that is a real stylistic departure for the band even as it recalls the 1980s of the group’s heyday. The title track, “Funplex,” is more typical B-52s; it’s danceable and boasts a convincing faith in its own nuttiness that is a hallmark of the best of the band’s work.

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