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Devo
Something For Everybody Ross Pounds , June 23rd, 2010 13:01

If there's ever been a band that've fully embraced and manipulated the corporate ethos, then it's Devo. They were and are the band as brand, building an identity from the ground up as a playful subversion of the artist as a corporation, a satirical comment on the music industry and the concept of advertising and association (indeed, as Gerry Casale recently noted in an excellent interview with the Quietus' Emily Bick, "we were being satirical, and we were doing it ourselves, to ourselves, as an art pose, and it wasn't cynical, it was playful...") but at the same time utilising the very ideals they were satirising as a way of taking the band to ever larger platforms. Mocking the corporate world as a way of rising within it. Maintaining outsider status whilst embracing the mainstream. It's a trick as old as time subverted for the purpose of art: sabotage from the inside.

Something for Everybody, the band's ninth studio album, is also their first in twenty years. Without wishing to dwell too heavily on the concept of branding, some explanation is needed. For a more detailed discussion of the subject, read the above interview, but the basics are as follows: The band joined ad agency Mother and conducted various online surveys and meetings with focus groups, letting fans choose everything from the tracks that would appear on the album to the new colour to be used for their energy dome headgear. As Casale explains: "…the only force that determines how you think of music, why you know that it's there to begin with or why you should care about it, is marketing. So we were making a comment on that and using it at the same time." Basically, stretch the corporate structure to it limits and utilise every possible facet of the modern face of branding, both as a means of satire and as a way of letting the fans have their say in as many ways as possible. Creativity prospering at the core of the most corporate of set-ups. Or something like that.

But what about the music? The world wasn't exactly clamouring for another Devo album after 1990's muddled Smooth Noodle Maps, a horribly inconsistent dud which more or less killed any credibility they had left. No one would have blamed the band if they'd carried on down reformation road, breaking up every now and then, recording and releasing the odd new single here or track for an advert here or film there, filling the coffers with a festival appearance or tour when it suited them. Some bands have unfinished business, a genuine reason for reformation, but not Mark Mothersbaugh and his men. So their decision to get back in the studio and create genuinely fresh material from scratch and not to polish some half-finished demos from a quarter of a century ago is one to be admired, a creative step in tandem with the band's reputation for fearlessness, and a risk that deserves to be applauded. But was it one worth taking? On the evidence provided here, the answer would be both yes and no.

On Something for Everybody the band don't embarrass themselves but neither do they cover themselves in glory. The glaring problem here, however, is that criticism seems null and void. Although meant at least partially from a satirical viewpoint, the decision to let fans choose the album's tracklist, simply picking the 12 tracks with the most votes and putting them on in that order, also absolves the band from any blame. They created the songs, but it wasn't up to them whether they made it onto the album or not. It makes analysing it as a body of work slightly redundant, sort of like attempting to review one of those fan chosen greatest hits, but maybe that's the point? From a purely musical vantage point, it's certainly a better album than Smooth Noodle Maps, and one very much in touch with modern culture, at times to the extent where the band overdo it slightly. Taking a chorus ("Don't tase me, bro!" on 'Don't Shoot (I'm a Man)') from a viral sensation is very (post) modern, admittedly, but it makes a fairly poor song even worse. The decision, too, to have Greg Kurstin smear his bland production sheen over the majority of the tracks was a poor one. 'No Place Like Home', in particular, is a lowlight, sounding like a quickly discarded Duran Duran B-side poorly covered by The Bravery. In a previous era it could have been seen as an in-joke included for easy laughs, a dig at the pomposity of corporate pop. Here it just feels like a mistake, a misguided and misjudged step in the wrong direction. Where's Brian Eno when you need him?

There are positive points, however. Listening to the album serves as a reminder of just how much influence the band have had, of how their sound has gradually poured over vast swathes of popular culture. The excellent opener 'Fresh' (produced, in part, by Santigold) sounds like the kind of track Maximo Park or the Futureheads would spend ten years trying to create, but it's the kind of thing Devo have always been able to conjure up in an instant. It's a startling reminder of past glories, as well as a slightly disingenuous album opener. 'What We Do', too, sounds like pre Todd Rundgren, post The Warning-era Hot Chip, a track brimming with vivacity and fun, something at once immediate and throwaway, hooks churned out with a delightful recklessness. For a brief moment it's as if the band have captured something vital again, a success in the same vain as the failed experiments that litter Smooth Noodle Maps.

The real standout, though, comes on 'Sumthin'', the only track produced entirely by the band and the only thing on here that could genuinely be filed alongside the likes of 'Whip It' and 'Gut Feeling'. It's a brilliant, spiralling, visceral sucker punch of a pop song, a gleaming stallion in a stable full of ponies, and oddly heart-warming. As much as Something for Everybody feels rather unnecessary, it's a track which proves the band still have something to give. That it's followed by the terrible one-two of 'Step Up' and 'Cameo' (which, horrifically, sounds like a Tenacious D cast-off), however, is the album in microcosm: tantalising moments of brilliance padded out by an awful lot of filler and a few tracks which never should have reached the ears of anyone outside the studio. Maybe it's time for the band to hone the album concept once again, to choose the songs themselves next time, to prove that they still have something to give. But, right now, it feels as though it might be a good idea to leave it well alone, to get back on the road, to push the brand one more time. Where they once seemed like the future Devo now feel, sadly, like a thing of the past.

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