Devo – EZ Listening Muzak (1981/1984/1987/2016)

titelive_0634158583353_d_0634158583353Though pretty much a lifelong spudboy, I was not quite old/hip enough to have these recordings as first issued on mail order cassettes. A few years later, Ryko’s E-Z Listening Disc reissue in 1987 was my favorite thing to study to in college, so when the first official vinyl version appeared as a box early last year, it was a fetish object that rendered me powerless and one I knew I would inevitably possess. While I didn’t go as far as the ‘Smoking Gown Edition’ and would have been content with the simple gatefold version that followed a few months later, my first listen was still a ritualistic one, accompanied by an obediently concocted supply of ‘Devo Fizz’ from the enclosed cocktail recipes. This new edition follows the track order of the Ryko, but reinstates a missing alternate “Shout,” and adds a newly recorded EZ version of a new millennium Devo tune. It’s the sequence I’m used to, though some purists balk that it should have retained that of the 1981 and 1984 volumes. But those were cassettes folks, and no reason why the LP presentation should adhere to that—besides the side breaks fall perfectly here.

“Gates of Steel” sets a scene of suburban tranquility straight outta Pee-wee, and anticipates the scoring Mark Mothersbaugh would soon be doing for episodes of the Playhouse. It’s almost a joke—turning the pseudo-revolutionary rallying cry of “twist away the gates of steel” into an anthem for domestic bliss. The brief timpani roll that starts “Girl U Want” kills me everytime, and offers a fresh arrangement of a song that isn’t quite interesting enough to withstand the fatigue from decades of incessant airplay. The band liked it too, and reinstated the vocal and played the EZ version live for a short while. The tune of “Come Back Jonee” is almost unrecognizable, lassoing in the punk energy into something so gentle and jaunty one can imagine it playing under a Slinky TV commercial. Bob Mothersbaugh is underrated guitarist, and as the band became increasingly synthpop, he was given less to do on each subsequent album, which is why it’s great to hear him playing all over “Whip It”—another reinvention of a song most of us would be content to never hear again. “That’s Good” is another whose original also gets old real quick, reinvigorated here in a bopping version with a melodica letting loose. The band was able to employ all kinds of instrumentation that wouldn’t suit their FM radio selves, strangely many analog ones, including a vibraphone (or something like it) on a delirious “Jerkin’ Back and Forth.”

By the time the band made Shout (1984) they were pretty much dead to me, new material-wise, so I honestly couldn’t tell you what “4th Dimension” first sounded like, but I’m o.k. with this high-spirited roller rink take (in the interest of due diligence I just dialed up the original, and I’m kinda sorry I did—but good to know that the “Day Tripper” quote used so charmingly here was not so effectively employed in the original). Until now, the proceedings have hardly been easy listening, but things begin to settle down a bit with a few sweeps of harp strings on “Shout (Hello Kitty).” A melancholic “Mongoloid” is  positively spooky, with individual notes painfully extracted from the keyboard console, and a periodic rumbling noise providing the only percussion. “Pity You” is another whose pop hooks originally eluded me, but this one is pleasant enough, again inching towards Mark’s soundtrack work, sounding something like a sunset over Pee-wee’s Playhouse. “Goin’ Under” is another New Traditionalists composition that didn’t quite work for me until this arrangement (again later adapted into a powerful live version) which suggests the title theme of a forgotten 1960s spy show.

“S.I.B.” is for some reason retitled “Swelling, Itchy Brain” here (over the previous “Itching”) and is the last subdued song before things get crazy again. Again, I can’t recall “Jurisdiction of Luv” from Shout but this one is hardly relaxing. I remember occasionally putting the Ryko CD on when going to sleep, and after a delightfully lulling half hour or so, being stirred alert by this and a particularly unhinged “Peek-A-Boo!”—with its wolf howls, moans and even more insane laughter than in the original. The band’s initial cover of “Satisfaction” was recognizable only by the lyrics, and this one too borrows just one component from the source material—the guitar riff that was perversely absent from their unlikely hit version. This one is almost trance-inducing, particularly at the periodic breaks when the drum beat seems to drift off into a fade but instead remains defiantly unrelenting. The bleeps and blops of “Space Junk” seem to be wired in directly from mission control, with the occasional satellite whirring by overhead.

I can’t think of a tambourine on any other Devo recording, but it’s put to effective sparse use on “Time Out For Fun.” With it’s distant lo-fi sound, banjo and jaw harp, “It’s A Beautiful World” sounds like a bygone vaudeville show, and have to confess I’d never noticed the ‘laugh bag’ effect at the end before. I’m used to the ultra-hypnotic “Jocko Homo” as the conclusion, but in the ‘bonus tracks’ slot we get another version of “Shout.” Again, dropped from the Ryko for some reason, this one is new to me, and therefore doesn’t seem to fit. It’s the most self-consciously lounge-y of what are otherwise clear-eyed interpretations, though Alan Myers never got to get this jazzy, here playing brushes on the most acoustic sounding of all Devo drum parts. “Human Rocket” is indeed new, a remake from their not-quite return to form album from 2010. A Mark-solo piece I believe, and someone coming fresh to all these recordings would probably be sufficiently convinced it’s not out of place with its vintage company.

The whole undertaking seemed to have briefly reinvigorated the band (for they would soon again suck) but there’s simply no commercial reason for this music to exist. At the time they were rock stars with top 40 hits, and concocting these versions specifically as incidental music for the PA before taking the stage (and later made discreetly available on tapes for fans) is insane. Relevant might be overstating it, but for an extracurricular enterprise, it’s much more compelling than it has any reason to be, and to all but the most devoted it’s the last absolutely vital thing they did together.

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