Every week in Second Listen, Frank Macarthy takes a closer look at some of the lesser-known albums put out by well-known musicians.
“Well, I kinda feel sorry for Jimmy.”
“Yeah, but you don’t know the whole story. He wasn’t a nice guy.”
“What do you mean?”
“Let me tell you…”
Jimmy’s in a wheelchair and I don’t care.
Ah, classic Devo – a song about a man who used to beat his dog and his wife until karma caught up with him and he ended up in a wheelchair. I expect nothing less from a band that is based in the theory of human de-evolution (and silly red hats).
Years after the success of Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo! and Freedom of Choice, Devo notched another post-punk, new-wave hole in their studio belt with Smooth Noodle Maps. One question remained though: was the world still interested in a self-aware brand of humor surrounded by synthesizers and droning melodies? The answer was a resounding “no.”
The 1980s were the home to the birth, rise, decline and death of new wave, but apparently Devo didn’t get the memo. Smooth Noodle Maps was released in 1990 to overwhelmingly negative reception by critics (and fans) who were ready to un-tease their hair, trade in their synths for guitars and drop the silly matching outfits for a few oversized flannels. But, don’t fret: Smooth Noodle Maps is so 80s it hurts. The good kind of hurt, though, the kind for which you usually have a safe word. Just be prepared to use that safe word several times throughout this album.
“Post Post-Modern Man” was the first and only single to be released from the album, and it is definitely the strongest track overall. Complex synthesized riffs overlaid with understated acoustic guitar progressions fit in perfectly with the upbeat and catchy vocals. The repetition works here, mostly because the song is poppy enough that it slides into the mainstream practically undetected save for the electronic drums that sound like a hammer hitting pipes.
The rest of the album does not fit so neatly into the mainstream music scene of the time. The first track, “Stuck in a Loop,” has a better chance as an anthem for cheesy 1980s montages everywhere. Other tracks like, “A Change is Gonna Cum” (still not sure why they chose that spelling) and “When We Do It” prove that Devo had not moved forward musically, and also forgot how to balance their humor and their music.
Q: Are We Not Men A: We are Devo! was reviewed as being emotionless, impersonal and distant (later to receive the praise it deserved), but such a review sounds more fitting for Smooth Noodle Maps. The repetition and lack of actual instruments gives this album a very robotic feel that erases any shred of passion. Now, don’t get me wrong, I understand that this was part of Devo’s appeal and has become a staple of their style, but they were able to maintain an emotional drive on other, previously acclaimed albums. The problem is not that the songs are bad, but that they are merely forgettable, and that is almost worse.
But there are diamonds in the (synthesized) rough. Other than “Post Post-Modern Man,” tracks such as “The Big Picture” and “Jimmy” still have that self-aware Devo style. Songs like these take 1980s new wave as seriously as it was supposed to be taken: not seriously at all. “The Big Picture” is not really a Devo song. It barely sounds like them, other than the dominating synthesizers. It is a two and a half minute, in-your-electronic-face romp that offers a glimmer of hope that Devo may have actually evolved with the times. But, like their name states, they wouldn’t.
“Jimmy,” on the other hand, is the Devo that we all have come to know and love. Electronic drums dominate the track while sardonic lyrics drive the classic Devo humor. This track serves as a reminder of why we should all miss Devo and their heyday antics. Modern musicians (aside from bands such as GWAR and Ween) take themselves too seriously. Music has become a job, not a hobby. Record companies, venue managers, fat paychecks and Ticketmaster have all stripped the fun out of music. That is not to say that music is no longer fun, but it is no longer wheelchair-comedy fun.
From start to finish, Smooth Noodle Maps ends up a little overcooked, and nobody likes floppy, slimy noodles. The album is too easy to forget. With the release of the “Post Post-Modern Man” single containing different versions of the song and different mixes done by various artists, Smooth Noodle Maps becomes almost unnecessary. I wish I had the audacity to review EZ Listening Disc, but my critically negative vocabulary is only so vast.