Favorite Songs By Favorite Artists (Series Two) #33: Devo

Note: For an index of all articles in this second “Favorite Songs” series, click here. For a summary of all artists covered in the original series, click here.

Who They Are: A conceptual art-rock band formed in Akron, Ohio, in the early 1970s, blending strikingly experimental yet accessible music with stellar pre-MTV-era visuals, all designed to advance their prescient social theory of “de-evolution,” wherein humanity has begun to regress, rather than evolve, in these sad modern times. Those social elements were framed around and in the aftermath of the Kent State shootings; stalwart member Gerald Casale and early member/manager Bob Lewis worked on the basic parameters for their group’s philosophy while students at that university, then expanded and enhanced the concept through the highly surrealistic lens added by fellow Kent student Mark Mothersbaugh. Fluid early membership eventually stabilized around the group’s classic line-up, with Lewis departing, Mothersbaugh and Casale being joined by their brothers, both named Bob (the Mothersbaugh sibling became “Bob 1,” the Casale brother “Bob 2”), and drummer Alan Myers. After a high-profile creative bidding war involving a variety of would-be labels and producers, the group issued its debut album in 1978, and by 1980 were placing highly on global charts with their breakthrough pop hit, “Whip It.” The classic line-up continued with diminishing commercial and critical success until 1986, when Myers departed. After a pair of albums with ex-Sparks drummer David Kendrick, the group went on a long recording hiatus, finally re-emerging in 2010 with their (as of now) final studio project, Something For Everybody, with Josh Freese on drums. Myers died in 2013, and Bob 2 died in 2014. Bob 2 has since been replaced by Josh Hager for subsequent live shows; I guess this makes him “Josh 2” to Freese’s “Josh 1.” Throughout Devo’s later career, Mark Mothersbaugh has emerged as a go-to soundtrack composer and creator for a vast list of television, video and feature film projects through his Mutato Muzika studio. I’m always happy to see his name appear in opening credits, as I know fine sounds will follow.

When I First Heard Them: I can answer this question down to the exact date: October 14, 1978. Devo appeared on Saturday Night Live that evening, and their performance was one of the most incredible, mind-warping things I have ever seen on television. They played two songs from their debut album, Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo!, that night, along with some bits from their short film The Truth About De-Evolution, and I was fascinated, thrilled, appalled and legitimately frightened by what I saw, knowing nothing about them in advance of that unexpected breach in my cultural consciousness. When I went to the local mall record store the next day and discovered that their debut album had been produced by Brian Eno, who I already loved, I was sold, hooked, converted and convicted on behalf of their cause. (This was not a popular position with my peers, but what else is new, then or now?) Over the next couple of years, various Devo video bits emerged via HBO’s Video Jukebox and other late-night outlets of those quaint pre-MTV days, and Devo’s video deconstruction of the Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction” (which they’d played on that SNL performance) was another strange-to-disturbing visual highlight of the late ’70s for me. I post videos of those two transformative SNL performances below, and I recommend you watch them now. I still marvel at the insectoid, twitchy choreography, the technology, the use of film, and the wonders of Mark’s guitar on “Satisfaction,” with pedals and God knows what else taped all over it. It’s still a massively other-worldly moment.

Why I Love Them: They make delightfully strange music, for sure, but it’s almost always anchored in killer hooks and melodies that leave your brain singing words that it probably shouldn’t, over and over and over again. I also always tend to love groups which see their creative bodies of work as being something greater than their albums or singles, so Devo’s pioneering video work, and deeply-elucidated philosophical approaches have always appealed to me, as they make me think while I’m tapping my toes and humming their tunes. Given the ways that our Nation’s politics, social interactions, mass media, entertainment, and artistic arcs have curved in recent decades, I have to say that Devo’s early insistence that we were collectively regressing rather than growing was pretty spot on in many ways. The great film Idiocracy has become a verbal short-cut to describe the phenomenon, but Devo beat Mike Judge to the post on this particular front, and The Truth About De-Evolution could and should have become the cultural rubric that we cite when we want to decry a world where vapid influencers, dishonest racists and rightists, plasticine film stars, and “famous because they’re famous” cultural personas shape and shame the culture within which we are so often forced to swim today. As is the case with Kraftwerk, I have also always appreciated Devo’s advanced technological prowess in the studio and on-stage; their early ’80s albums featured Fairlight CMI and Synclavier II electronic musical instruments and various vocal processing applications and sequencing/sampling synths that were rare and precious and close to sci-fi in their time, even if they might sound quaint and dated today. As digital and computerized as their music could be, they recognized the importance of the big guitar moment in their songs, and Bob 1 has been a deeply under-appreciated soloist and rhythmic engine for their work over the years. At bottom line, Devo are smart in a generally stupid idiom, pointing out the ways we were stupid in smart fashion, all atop beats you can dance to. Not many other acts can claim success in hitting so many marks in so many ways with such success. (Note: In my Top Ten lists, I normally just post links to studio versions of the songs I select, but given Devo’s strong video skills, I share their own visuals below when they are available).

#10. “Come Back Jonee,” from Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo! (1978)

#9. “Please Baby Please,” from Something for Everybody (2010)

#8. “Through Being Cool,” from New Traditionalists (1981)

#7. “That’s Good,” from Oh, No! It’s Devo (1982)

#6. “Race of Doom,” from New Traditionalists (1981)

#5. “Gates of Steel,” from Freedom of Choice (1980)

#4. “Enough Said,” from New Traditionalists (1981)

#3. “Fresh!,” from Something for Everybody (2010)

#2. “Beautiful World,” from New Traditionalists (1981)

#1. “Jocko Homo,” from Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo! (1978)

Jed Davis: A Three-Pack of Three-Packs

A couple of years ago, I wrote an article noting that I was pleased by the re-emergence of short-form musical documents in the digital age, essentially re-creating the great “EP” model of earlier, simpler, vinyl-er days. (Well, in days before “vinyl” was an affectation, anyway). As artists have been better able to control the mass-release of their own works online in real time, the need and drive to produce “long-playing” albums (35-45 minutes ideally in their original heyday, 60-80 minutes in the bloated compact disc era) with record label support has waned, and standalone singles or small collections of songs have become more common, and more accepted. More signal, less noise. More meat, less fat. More laundry, less fluff. These are good trends, to these ears.

Long-time readers here will know of my admiration and affection for Jed Davis, one of the great singer-songwriter-players of our generation, easily, no hyperbole involved or required. If you’re new to my site, or if you Ol’ Skool Fools need a refresher, here’s a list of articles that have featured or mentioned him here. He’s a player’s player, a writer’s writer, a singer’s singer, and a damned fine visual artist to boot. The real deal. I first became aware of him when he was a student at SUNY-Albany in the mid-’90s, and have been an awe-struck fan and supporter of his sublime work ever since, as a solo artist, and with a variety of groups, e.g. Collider, The Hanslick Rebellion, Jeebus, Skyscape, Sevendys and more. It’s a rare occurrence here in our household where we don’t spin at least a song or three of his over the course of any given day. And that’s been the case for about a quarter-century and counting at this point.

Jed has been collaborating regularly with the great Juliana Hatfield in recent years, on musical, video and album artwork fronts, and has recently been receiving well-deserved kudos for his contributions to Hatfield’s new album,  Blood. Here’s a killer cut from that record, as a representative sampling of how their collaboration sounds:

As that long-player from Juliana is earning rave reviews, I’m also glad to report that Jed has launched a series of releases that play into my affection for short-form collections of songs. He’s not calling them EP’s, though, but rather “Three-Packs.” Here’s the premise, as he explains it:

2020 wasn’t good for much, but being homebound did allow me to sort through 30 years of old recordings, and unarchive tons of shelved and incomplete material.

And then finish that shit!

I am not really interested in doing “albums” anymore… holding music back until a dozen arbitrarily-linked songs are mixed and mastered and the stars and planets align. But at the same time, “singles” are kind of boring and “EPs” demand some degree of cohesion, and I don’t want to be boxed in like that. So here is what I offer you: THREE-PACKS

Remember those randomly-bagged multipacks of comic books they used to sell in toy and drug stores? You wouldn’t be able to see what was inside until you tore open the plastic, and the comics might be brand new or fifteen years old… it was just whatever happened to be laying around when they bundled it up. There was no thematic connection, no rhyme or reason to the collection, and one bag could even contain books from both Marvel AND DC. I was introduced to so many fun stories that way, and that is how I am going to introduce (or reintroduce) you to all of these songs.

Jed released the third Three-Pack in the series this morning (hence the title of this post), and it’s tickling me to pieces, a densely brilliant, fun, smart, and spectacularly composed and arranged little gem. Which is also a perfectly apt descriptor of the two prior Three-Packs. Taken as a group, the nine songs released thus far in the series were originally recorded between 1993 and 2014, and feature performances by (among many others) such stellar session, band and solo artists as Chuck Rainey, Tony Levin, Sheridan Riley, Marta Garrett, Adam Alesi, Anton Fig, Angel Marcloid, Joe Zeitlin, and Josh Plotner. I was familiar with a few of the featured songs before these new releases, but in every case, what I already knew and loved has been improved and enhanced by Jed’s new mixes, or by new parts played by new collaborators, or both.

While all nine songs are killer, a few rise even above the general high levels of excellence that I expect from Jed. First and foremost, the most recent piece, “Across a Thunderstorm” (2014, from Three-Pack #2) is absolutely one of the finest songs that Jed has ever composed and performed, and that’s truly saying something. It’s a slow-burn number featuring spacious piano and synths from Jed and subtle percussion from Anton Fig, and it just soars into the creative ether, deeply emotional lyrically, and deeply emotive from a sonic perspective. If you want a fine example of the ways that songwriters and performers can best deploy their crafts to create transcendent experiences, this one would be a textbook example. Swoon! And swoon again! Just perfect, and lovely, and haunting, and fine.

“Stick Around” (Three-Pack #1) and “City of My Dreams” (Three-Pack #2) ably demonstrate Jed’s proficiency with swinging soul/funk/pop paradigms, both of them instant ear-worms, both of them guaranteed to move you, literally and figuratively. Today’s release (Three-Pack #3) opens with the slamming post-prog metal stylings of “Halfway Through September,” featuring the great Tony Levin on Chapman Stick, an instrument that has obsessed me for decades, especially when TLev plays it. I also tend to obsess about the bass clarinet (see this piece), and that lovely instrument features centrally on “Reorganizing My Phonebook,” a dreamy cut originally laid down around the time when I first got to know Jed and his work. It was a fine piece then, and it more than holds it own in 2021. And will likely do so when I revisit it a decade or two hence. As will the remainder of the eight cuts already released in this series, as Jed’s true brilliance lies, on some plane, in his ability to craft songs so good that they could be played or recorded in any numbers of idioms, in any number of eras, by any number of artists with the taste or style to appreciate and interpret his craft.

Of course, the very best versions of those songs will always be the ones that Jed Davis himself plays and sings, and his new series of short releases has, thus far, been a tremendous reminder of the depth and breadth of his songwriting catalog, and his skills as a performer and studio maven.  All three of the Three-Packs already released are available via all of the usual online outlets, but I’ve been nabbing them from the Eschatone Records site at Bandcamp, because I like owning things, not streaming things, both as a personal preference, and as a statement of support for the artists I appreciate. Here’s the link to get your first three Three-Packs, and I encourage you to bookmark it so you can add to your collection as Jed sees fit to share his work with us. I’ll certainly be doing so, with spurs on, with bated breath, and with various other indications of anticipation and excitement and appreciation.

Jed’s mad graphic design skillZ in full effect here on the first three-pack cover.

Favorite Songs By Favorite Artists (Series Two) #32: ZZ Top

Note: For an index of all articles in this second “Favorite Songs” series, click here. For a summary of all artists covered in the original series, click here.

Who They Are: A blues-based trio from Texas, active since 1969, featuring Billy Gibbons on guitar and vocals, Dusty Hill on bass and vocals, and Frank Beard on drums. Since the early ’80s, they’ve been most visually recognizable via Gibbons’ and Hill’s majestic beards, sunglasses and Stetson hats, while their drummer (remember, his name is “Beard”) goes clean-shaven. Ha ha ha, I get it! Having emerged as a popular live and rock radio act in the ’70s, the group peaked in commercial popularity in the early-to-mid-’80s, when the MTV-ready videos from their synth-fortified album Eliminator (1983) made them a ubiquitous visual and musical presence. They (mostly) bailed on the electronics in the  early ’90s, but have continued to release (mostly) interesting blues-based albums over the ensuing decades. While the group’s admirable chemistry and lack of personnel changes over half-a-century are historically and culturally admirable, it’s also important to note that they had made some deeply influential (if only regionally popular, in its time) music in the ’60s as members of psychedelic rock ensembles American Blues (Hill and Beard) and Moving Sidewalks (Gibbons). A 2019 documentary called ZZ Top: That Little Ol’ Band From Texas provides perhaps the best summary of their long history and impact, and I commend it to your attention.

When I First Heard Them: I am sure that I would have heard their early hit singles “La Grange” (1973) and “Tush” (1975) on the radio when they were charting, though it wasn’t until that later ’70s that I really focused on them, largely through the influence of my Dead Head friend Glenn from Hicksville United Methodist Church on Long Island, who really tuned me into their early work (and peak-era Dead, too). They were obviously unavoidable during the first half of the ’80s, when MTV was wreaking magic and havoc on the music world, and ZZ Top were doing their weird part to craft the visuals and synthetic sounds of the era. I appreciated and enjoyed those ’80s hits in their time, but they do really tend to be specifically of that time, all these years on, their sequencer-based grooves screaming “1984” just as loudly and clearly as, say, New Order’s “Blue Monday.” Which isn’t a bad thing, exactly, but it means that the songs of that era aren’t necessarily going to score highly on my “all-time favorites” charts.

Why I Love Them: Sadly, here in this our American of 2021, the word “Texas” can often be used as short-hand to describe loads of social, political, cultural, and musical things that are simply abhorrent to  me. But if you peeled off the things that I actually really like about Texas, and boiled them down into their pure, raw essence, they’d probably sound a lot like ZZ Top. (Or look a lot like the traditional/historic Spanish/Mexican bits of San Antonio and/or El Paso). I truly and deeply appreciate the fact that these three dudes have been making music together for more than 50 years without a line-up change, which results in a magical musical chemistry that’s precious and rare in the sad auto-tuned, pro-shopped, songwriter-milled, and studio-hacked musical landscapes within which we all too often labor of late. Beyond their longevity, I also applaud and commend their technical proficiency: Gibbons is a guitar hero by any definition of that phrase, and the Hill-Beard rhythm section swings like nobody’s business. While their catalog is rooted in the most-traditional idiom of the American blues, ZZ Top have never been afraid to foresee and embrace the future, grafting synthesizers, sequencers, and video visuals onto their roots-rock super-structures long before it was considered commercially or critically savvy to do so. Their pre-Top bona fides as members of a pair of highly-influential Texas psych-rock bands also pay tribute to their prescience and persistence in the face of a music industry that has never really quite known what to do with them, allowing them to do just what they want to do, in just the ways that they want to do it, throughout their long, successful, and entertaining career together. And “entertaining” is a key word there: these dudes put on a show, always, in the best sense of that word. Their visual and musical shticks are trite on one hand, but sublime on another, the net wash of which is a group that makes music, live and in the studio, that’s guaranteed to force a listener to tap her toes or wiggle his hips, happily, while being implanted with some truly epic ear-worm hooks and melodies that are tasty enough to make return visits pleasurable to the max. They’re deeply talented, they’re musically tight, they write (or cover) and play great songs, and they’re fun, fun, FUN, all the time. What’s not to love about that? Even outside of Texas?

#10. “Groovy Little Hippie Pad,” from El Loco (1981)

#9. “Dusted,” from Mescalero (2003)

#8. “Goin’ Down to Mexico,” from ZZ Top’s First Album (1970)

#7. “Bar-B-Q,” from Rio Grande Mud (1972)

#6. “Tush,” from Fandango (1975)

#5. “El Diablo,” from Tejas (1976)

#4. “La Grange,” from Tres Hombres (1973)

#3. “Cheap Sunglasses,” from Degüello (1979)

#2. “I Gotsta Get Paid,” from La Futura (2012)

#1. “Jesus Just Left Chicago,” from Tres Hombres (1973)

Modern Talk

Chuck Miller is a writer friend from Albany, and a fellow maltreated survivor of the Times Union Blog Farm. While I consider myself to be a reasonably prolific keyboard wrangler, Chuck is one of a small number of people (Roger Green being another) who can put me to shame with both the volume and quality of the content offered at their websites. Both of those gents have blogged daily for well over a dozen years, never missing a post, ever. There are few constants in life, but I always appreciate the fact that I can go to their websites any day, every day, and get fresh content, constantly, all of which I enjoy.

Chuck has also always been a great champion of the community-building aspects of online communication, and for years he’s devoted his Saturday posts to highlighting other writers’ work from the preceding week. During the Anno Virum, he added a new feature to his weekly round-up, offering a video interview each Saturday with a selected writer from his blogroll. As it turns out, while I was up in Boise this past weekend, Chuck ran a video of a conversation that he and I had taped a couple of weeks earlier. It was fun to chat with him “work from home” style, having not seen him in person since I left Albany in 2011, though we’ve stayed in touch through our websites since then.

I appreciate being included in Chuck’s roster of interesting community-building talks. If you’d like to hear how it went (or hear what I sound like, if you only know me from virtual spaces), click on the screen cap below for a link to the full video at Chuck’s website. A fine idea on his part, well executed. As are most things that he sets his mind to, as will become amply evident if you forage about at his site for any amount of time!

After A Reunion (Of Sorts)

Best travel buddy Marcia and I are home this afternoon after a five-day trip to visit with family en masse for the first time in nearly two years. We drove up to Las Vegas to see Katelin and John, with a stop to hike down to Hoover Dam on the way. We got to celebrate John’s birthday with a lovely dinner, the first one the four of us have eaten out together in a long, long time, it seemed. (All of us have been fully vaccinated, though we’re still doing our part with masks and distancing and such, it should go without saying). Then we flew on to Boise, Idaho, where my niece, Emmeline, was graduating from Boise State University, having finished her B.S. in Health Sciences there. Great jorb, Emme!

My sister (Paige), her husband (Dana), their son (Charlie), his girlfriend (Kristen), and my mother (The Notorious G.R.Z.) were also in town for the festivities. Dana’s brother (Ward), and his wife (Nova), and daughter (Lucy) live in Boise, as does Emmeline’s boyfriend (Asher), adding to the extended family fun. Ward, Nova and Lucy hosted us for a couple of nights of backyard delights, and we’re most grateful for their wonderful hospitality. Also most grateful for Lucy’s OMG BEST COOKIES EVAR!!!111!!1!!1, which she baked and generously shared with us. I’d have kept them to myself had I made them. She’s a peach. Likewise Nova, who had a rough surgery on Friday but still hostessed us the mostest in their lovely Boise home. Sending healing hugs and thanks her way.

We had the chance to visit Ward at Duft Watterson, his exceptional design and advertising agency, which was simply awash with various “Best in Show” awards for their truly unique and exciting work. As those who read me regularly know, I am a design and typeface and marketing snob, but what I saw of what they did and where/how they did it was just brilliant, an assessment borne out by the portfolio shared on their website. You need design, you call Ward and his team. Chop chop. The Duft Watterson office is in the heart of The Basque Block, so we got to have some awesome grub while we were hanging out in their ‘hood. We also paid a visit to The Basque Museum, which was very well curated and interpreted for such a small cultural/educational attraction. I recommend that site as well, heartily.

This trip was the first time we got to meet Asher and Kristen and they were great company. Emmeline and Charlie done good on the partners front. It worked out wonderfully to get to see my Mom for the first time since August 2019 and share Mother’s Day with her, and then to fly back via Vegas again, so Katelin and Marcia could have their special brunch together this morning. (I got to tag along). We drove back home via a slightly different route and did a hike from Laughlin, Nevada up to the Davis Dam. Lots of hydro infrastructure this trip. Marcia and I also got to do some fine couples hikes in Boise, where the wildflowers were in full force, making the lovely countryside even more beautiful. Good company, good times.

A fine trip, all things considered. And now it feels fine to be back home. I’ve posted an album of the adventure over at Flickr, as I normally do. You can click on either the photo of me at the 3-D exhibition at the Basque Museum (Paige took that one), or The Notorious G.R.Z. in full festive flight (not sure who snapped that one!) to see the rest of the collection.

The Night Has 10,000 Words (Sedona #7)

(Note: We’re headed up to Idaho this week to visit with my extended family for the first time in two years, and to see my niece graduate from Boise State University. I might have some snaps from that trip when I return, but until then, here’s some more local color from our Northern Arizona homeland, including a day-trip up to the Flagstaff area).

(Note: Click on any image for full-size view)

PRIOR ARTICLES IN THIS SERIES:

10,000 Words From The Exit Wound (Sedona #6)

What Are 10,000 Words For? (Sedona #5)

10,000 Words In A Cardboard Box (Sedona #4)

10,000 Words (Bless The Lord) (Sedona #3)

Brighter Than 10,000 Words (Sedona #2)

10,000 Words (Sedona #1)

Storm Force 10,000 Words (Chicago #10)

Ship Arriving Too Late To Save 10,000 Words (Chicago #9)

Beyond the Valley of 10,000 Words (Chicago #8)

Return to the Planet of 10,000 Words (Chicago #7)

Revenge of the Son of 10,000 Words (Chicago #6)

Son of Another 10,000 Words (Chicago #5)

Yet Another 10,000 Words (Chicago #4)

Another 10,000 Words (Chicago #3)

10,000 More Words (Chicago #2)

10,000 Words (Chicago)