Saturday, January 2, 2010

What a Couple of Decades that Was (Not Was)

Seriously, did anyone realize that Was (Not Was) has been around for 20 years? I suppose the follow-up is, do people think much about Was (Not Was) at all? Some careers are like that, following alternate routes and only occasionally intersecting with the rest of the musical world. Now, there's a "greatest hits" of sorts, Pick of the Litter 1980-2010, and the news (I suppose) is how listenable it is.

For the most part, the funk/jazz/pop band hasn't sat well in my memory - erratic, sometimes unkind, often weird for weirdness' sake. Its debut 12-inch, "Wheel Me Out", holds up beautifully and promised something the band never delivered again, a merger of Detroit rock 'n' roll (with Wayne Kramer on guitar), funk (P-Funk's Larry Fratangelo on percussion) and jazz (trumpeter Marcus Belgrave), all on a great dance groove with the enigmatic title cut and the image of "a former scientist / now on wheels" to give the track mystery. After that, their need to say more kept tracks from inviting listeners to join in the same way.

My experience was also that the band followed a good album with a forgettable one - a few I only remembered when I looked at the liner notes for Pick of the Litter - but like Frank Zappa, an obvious influence, my biggest doubt was the band's attitude toward the people in the songs. Was the seeming detachment in "Out Come the Freaks" a way to goof on people? Was David Was' faux-hipster delivery on "I Feel Better Than James Brown" a way to signal that the speaker's nuts, or to rip the world around him? What Up Dog's "Anytime Lisa" (not included here) cruelly focuses on the easy girl who's too blind to see the guy who really loves her. Are the semi-spoken word tracks like "Dad I'm in Jail" and "The Sky's Ablaze" some sort joke on the straights? On the people who want to find meaning in the meaningless? Or easy bits of weirdness that don't really speak to anything or anyone?

Still, Pick of the Litter is a reminder of how strong their songcraft was, and how varied their influences could be. The chant evoking Afropop gives "I Feel Better Than James Brown" a kick I didn't remember, and the musical backing on "Dad I'm in Jail" engaged me. The one track from vocalist Sweet Pea Atkinson's Was-produced solo album Don't Walk Away (1982) shows its vintage, but it also reflected a thoughtful attempt to create a contemporary context for a classic soul singer. And in Atkinson and Harry Bowens, Was (Not Was) had singers who could invest a measure of compassion in even the strangest lyrics and give listeners a reason to care. And even when their sound had become predictable, they didn't fake the funk. They weren't always funky, but they never treated funk, R&B or jazz as a joke, and on Pick of the Litter, that affection for the music that spawned the Was Brothers is the album's unifying and most appealing characteristic.

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