Devo may be one of the most subversive bands of all-time - I got into them as a kid, as my parents were both from Akron and actually knew the guys in the band. At the time, I loved their music because it was fun, catchy, and had lots of cool electronic noises, but had no idea that they had some vaguely apocalyptic manifesto behind it all, and certainly didn't pick up on the disturbing overtones that permeated most of their work. I would guess the millions of people that only knew the band for their one smash hit ("Whip It") and their unique matching costumes probably feel the same way.
I guess in order to really understand what Devo were all about, you'd have to understand the artistic culture that was coming out of Akron at the time. I would say the Akronians some of the first Americans to truly embrace postmodernism and integrate it into their lifestyle. In 1970's Akron, there were three types of humor - dry, extra dry, and scorched earth. The first Devo album had a bizarre morphed image of Chi Chi Rodriguez on the cover that they had originally found on a golf strap - it's not quite clear why, rather than that the band members found it funny. They were a band that could find inspiration in a series of bizarre, nonsensical fan letters written to a local TV station (check out the details here). They had no problem with appearing on an ad for laserdiscs, urging people to "express their individuality" despite wearing all matching suits themselves. They license their songs to be used in commercials that represent exactly what the songs themselves are a screed against (okay, money may be a factor here too). They even allowed a group of teenagers to re-record their hits to spread their music to the younger generation. This is what I mean when I say these guys were subversive.
With all the subtext it's easy to forget that these guys were pretty damn good musicians and songwriters as well. They're pretty tied into the keyboard-heavy New Wave scene and showed an interest in synthesizers before people really took them seriously (besides Keith Emerson, that is). Their early stuff (mostly showcased on the Hardcore Devo collections) gives a lot of insight into how truly innovative and weird this band really was before they got a record deal - the sound was raw and ugly, and lyrically they were disgusting. Strangely, some of the band's better material never saw the studio. You could make the argument that this was their best and most creative phase, but some of the early studio albums turned out really great as well. They were really a multimedia project - I don't want to say that Devo were the first to do music videos, but they were among the first to see how important they were, and as a result got a huge amount of play on MTV back in the day (not that MTV wanted to play them, but they had no choice). Once they got a record deal, their sound became much more polished and professional (and the tempos much faster), but they had to tone down the weirdness a little. You probably know the story by now - "Whip It" suddenly became a huge hit, and the band was pressured into coming up with another one. When the record company got their hands into the band's sound and started controlling them, the group more or less lost their spirit and was never the same. There is some really good post-"Whip It" material but the group didn't really have much to say at that point and sort of devolved into self-parody.
Before I get on to the reviews, let's talk about the band members a bit - Mark Motherbaugh (keyboards) and Jerry Casale (bass) were the main creative forces of the group and the two primary vocalists. Mothersbaugh had the nervous, high-pitched voice while Casale was the more deadpan and sarcastic one. The other members were Bob Motherbaugh (BOB1 - lead guitar), Bob Casale (BOB2 - rhythm guitar), and Alan Myers (drums). I will say that Myers deserves a lot of credit for the band's unique sound - his jittery, complex sense of rhythm really helped keep this band's music from falling apart. Unfortunately as the band progressed, they used more electronic and programmed drums, and Myers wound up quitting once his role in the band was diminished. To replace him, they used Dave Kendrick (ex-Sparks drummer) for a while, and more recently Josh Freese (who has worked with just about everybody).
Hardcore Devo, Volume 1 (1974-1977, released 1990)
These songs were from when the band were unknowns, recorded behind a car wash. Having only heard their Greatest Hits CD before, I picked this up from my uncle who gave me copies of both Hardcores - although a few of these tracks would be re-recorded, it was downright shocking to find out just how strange this band sounded in their formative years. The drums are mostly played on synth pads, sort of burying themselves in the mix, the vocals are weirdly deadpan, and the guitars are overdriven to the breaking point - it almost sounds like the amps are blown ("Buttered Beauties"). I would guess that the synthesizers are mostly homegrown, and in some cases sound like modulators and oscillators (similar to the Silver Apples). The tempos are pretty slow for a young band - this is truly the sound of things falling apart, and you get the impression that these songs could just run out of juice and stop at any time. This is Devo at their weirdest and most unique - in some parts they sound like they came from outer space. Volume 1 contains 15 tracks, ranging from catchy and energetic ("Uglatto", "I'm a Potato"), to slow and unstable ("Mechanical Man", "Ono"). There's really only one song you could dance to, which is sort of a disco parody ("Midget"). This is a long way from Freedom of Choice. Without any record company influence the group didn't really concede much to accessibility, and that's part of the beauty of it all. The lyrics are mostly vague sexual metaphors ("I parked my car in her garage"), and like their future releases, they talk about sex as though it was something disgusting and mechanical. If you're looking for some point of reference, the only real comparison I can make is to the Residents' Duck Stab (or maybe Gary Wilson), though they do have a blues base ("Auto Modown"). It's more performance art than rock, as none of the band members really had their chops yet (and Alan Myers had yet to join). Sadly this (and the next volume) are out of print, but they're well worth tracking down.
Hardcore Devo, Volume 2 (1974-1977, released 1990)
More from the vaults, but this one's longer, with a total of 21 tracks. Devo's weirder and more cerebral side really comes out here ("Chango", "U Got Me Bugged", "Booji Boy's Funeral", all based on unsettling synths). This is even rawer and more twisted than the first volume - a number of lines here definitely would not have flown on a major label ("I Need a Chick", which goes beyond your typical rock n' roll misogyny). To balance that out, there’s quite a few solid tunes here that should have been re-recorded ("Dogs of Democracy", "I've Been Refused", "Fountain of Filth"), whereas the songs that were re-recorded appear in deconstructed and much slower form ("Clockout", "Be Stiff"). This may wind up testing your patience a bit, especially if played all the way through - you'll find bluesy dirges ("Can You Take It", "All of Us"), wonky rock n' roll ("A Plan For U"), perverted country ("Goo Goo Itch"), and weird sentimental singalongs ("Bottled Up") before you find anything uptempo, and the Residents-style mutilated synthesizers may freak you out after a while, since they're mostly front and center ("Baby Talkin' Bitches", "The Rope Song"). But in the end, almost all of these songs are well-written and worthy of a bunch of spins, and it's surprising how melodic these guys can be ("Funeral" plays almost like a dystopian symphony). These are essentials.
Hardcore Devo, Volumes 3 and 4 (1974-1980??, never released)
There's very little record of these actually existing, but I found them on Soulseek and really was impressed - apparently someone had access to the Devo vaults and bootlegged some really rare material, with a bunch of live recordings and very early demos. The sound quality is much worse than the other Hardcores (which may be why there was never an official release) but there's a bunch of material I haven't heard before and for the die-hard Devo fan this can be quite interesting. Contains a few recordings as Devo's alter-ego DOVE and a lot of demos for the Q: Are We Not Men albums, along with alternate versions of previous Hardcore tracks.
Live - The Mongoloid Years (1976-1977, released 1995)
An early, rough document of the band's live show, ranging from the energetic and polished gig that gave them a record deal to one where they open for Sun Ra and manage to piss off pretty much everyone in the crowd by playing a 30-minute version of "Jocko Homo". Luckily for us it's been edited down. It's really funny actually - you can hear the crowd getting more and more agitated, and if you crank your volume in the end you can hear the band getting into a fight with some people from the crowd and the promoter (after they storm the stage and unplug their instruments). I guess this is really more obnoxious than anything, but it's pretty funny to hear how confrontational these guys were. I'd love to get some more of this, as apparently Devo in their early form were like this EVERY night, and the punkish selections from the polished gig are fantastic - they seem to really have improved on their instruments in a short period of time, and they sound like they're nearly overflowing with nervous energy. Has a few selections that don't appear anywhere else ("Subhuman Woman", "Beulah").
Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo! (1978)
This may be the most innovative record of the New Wave movement – many bands from XTC to Oingo Boingo to P-Model borrowed from this, and Polysics based their entire career on it. It’s closer to the punk movement than their later sound, with tons of fast guitar leads and a lot of energetic material. Mark Mothersbaugh handles most of the lead vocals here, shrieking and yelping rather than singing, and the rest of the band sounds rather apprehensive. But they harness this nervous energy and deliver what might as well be the flagship for guitar-based New Wave – jerky and precise rhythms, angular guitar riffs, and a strong lyrical message. Yes, it’s about de-evolution, with tons of masturbation references (“Uncontrollable Urge”, “Praying Hands”, “Shrivel-Up”), and the lyrics sometimes can get fairly grotesque (“Sloppy”). But the important thing is that they mean it – Mothersbaugh’s take on “Satisfaction” sounds a hundred times more sincere than Mick Jagger’s did – this is not the voice of a cool and confident rock star, but rather a jumpy and dorky guy who really can’t get laid. And don’t forget the music – they take out the main riff, inverted the drumbeat and patched everything else together from scratch, giving the song a mechanical and wonky feel that truly sounds like nothing else. There’s plenty of that on this record – some of the songs sound like they’re ready to become unscrewed at any time (“Too Much Paranoias”, “Sloppy”), and there’s a bunch of riffs that jerk and flop around (“Space Junk”, “Jocko Homo”). It feels like they wrote full guitar lines, but cut off the last chord or two and just looped what remained. Most importantly, this stuff really does rock (the frantic chanting on "Jocko Homo" is their defining moment), sometimes on an epic scale (the shredding on “Gut Feeling” sounds like it’s bringing down the house and taking the whole world with it), and there are few New Wave albums that infuse this much energy into already infectious tunes (“Uncontrollable Urge”, “Sloppy”, “Space Junk”). And I haven’t even mentioned the drumming – Alan Myers plays with a fervor and precision that recalls Stewart Copeland (seriously), and his interlocking rhythms are fascinating – you could spend the entire record just listening to him. This is essential New Wave.
Duty Now For The Future (1979)
While Are We Not Men was focused on rock, on the 2nd album Devo decided to get back to their colder and mechanical roots. This means that the guitar playing gets toned down in favor of more synths on material that doesn't quite call for it. The good news is that it’s still a good album that holds up well against similar synthpop efforts, and like most good Devo material, it’ll be stuck in your head for weeks. They can still rock when they have to (“Wiggly World”), and several of the tunes are as catchy as ever (“Strange Pursuit”, “Blockhead”). It does seem however that Devo was more concerned with their identity as this point – there are an awful lot of depressing and harsh lyrical sentiments here, and it seems like they purposely dog some of the selections to give the album more sarcasm and irony (“S.I.B.” and "Pink Pussycat" are intentionally obnoxious). But there is some really top-notch material here - “The Day My Baby Gave Me a Surprise” is surprisingly straightforward and melodic, but lyrically, it’s vaguely yet undeniably dark - what exactly does he mean by “We would once more live together/go out on a lovin’ spree/Just like before the accident/my baby would look at me”? The undeniable high point is “Smart Patrol/Mr. DNA”, which encapsulates everything great about the band, as they segue a catchy space-age number into a hard rocking jam session, complete with a memorable guitar solo. If you don’t find that song appealing, this band just isn’t for you. It's worth it for that tune alone, but most of them are pretty memorable, and this brand of economical synth-rock is hard to resist. Bonus tracks include "Soo Bawls" and the punkish "Penetration in the Centerfold", which is Devo at their heaviest and most crude - make sure this is the version you get.
Freedom of Choice (1980)
The famous album that made them stars thanks to "Whip It", but listening to this album all the way through, it’s hardly the catchiest track here, and it sounds downright gimmicky next to some of the more well-crafted songs here. Indeed, there were three more singles here ("Girl U Want", "Gates of Steel", and the title track), and at least two other tracks that could have easily been ("Snowball", "It's Not Right"). The synthesizer is now fully taken over as the lead instrument, but instead of mucking up the mix, they keep things fast and light, making this a great synth-pop album. Like Q: Are We Not Men, the hits are probably the highlights, but every song is good in its own right. While they've got their eyes focused on a traditional pop structure and melody ("It's Not Right"), there's always a hint of irony that invades the songs, as the band’s lyrical barbs haven’t exactly lightened up (“I owe you absolutely nothing/I know you positively disagree”). The great thing is that most of this is too catchy to ignore ("Cold War", "Mr. B's Ballroom"), meaning this album will probably get a lot of spins in a short time. Plus, there's a good amount of innovation if you look - "Girl U Want" is one of a rare breed of pop song with a dissonant melody, while "Planet Earth" and the title track feature an interesting and precise sense of rhythm, and “Gates of Steel” features one of the most affecting robo-synthesizer hooks I’ve ever heard. While their synth-heavy sound would deteriorate from here, at least we got one classic out of it.
Dev-O Live (1980, re-released 1999)
A live set capturing Devo at the height of their popularity. This was a 6-track EP that was definitely released as a cash-in after “Whip It” became a huge hit, but Rhino thankfully decided to re-release it in 1999 as an LP-sized album with 16 bonus tracks. The confusing thing is that this includes all the same songs as the original release, so it kind of sounds like the show resets itself after the original six songs. Perhaps Rhino felt that they couldn’t re-release something without including any of the original tracks. So just start from track 7 and go from there. As for the performance itself - they're jittery and apprehensive, but also professional, with clean guitar riffs and a tight rhythm section (I know I’ve said this before, but Alan Myers really deserves more credit than he’s gotten). The tempos are generally faster and the riffs hit harder, which is great considering how mechanical Devo could sound in the studio. In case you’ve forgotten, it is rock n’ roll. The way they bang out tunes like “Smart Patrol/Mr. DNA” is impressive - 7 minute New Wave tunes are not supposed to rock this hard. Mark, Jerry, and even Bob 1 are in fine vocal form throughout, and the track selection is mostly ace - after all, they are drawing from three fantastic albums, and hit most of the important stuff (although “Jocko Homo” is missing, which is disappointing as it was always the centerpiece of their show), including the single “Be Stiff” which never got an American release. I know I’m not really being descriptive considering the high rating, but there’s not much more I can say – there’s not much lost in translation from the studio, and if you have an affinity towards live music this disc is going to get a lot of play.
Side note: I also have a CD/DVD combo called "Devo Live 1980" which was made for a Target special - it's of roughly the same quality, and is definitely worth it to see how energetic and well-choreographed they were visually. Minus points for inexplicably leaving "Jocko Homo" off the CD side, however...
New Traditionalists (1981)
Similar to Freedom of Choice, but with a more sarcastic attitude, worse production, less guitar, more synthesizer, and a couple of filler tracks ("Super Thing", "Enough Said"). It nearly gets four stars on the quality of some of the individual songs, but the sound lacks the punch of the prior Devo albums. "Race of Doom" and "Going Under" are two of the most addictive Devo songs ever, and "Love Without Anger" is another unforgettable slice of synth-pop. And then there are the singles - "Beautiful World" brings back the guitars for a now classic track covered with irony, and "Through Being Cool" is so dorky it's hard not to love. The original LP had 10 songs, with a bonus 45 featuring their bouncy cover of "Workin' in the Coalmine", which also shouldn't be missed. I think all the CDs just append it as a bonus track now. All things considered, this could have been a really good album if the group was willing to add more of an edge to the recording - tracks 5-7 are one of my favorite stretches of Devo music, but I wish they had re-recorded these with more guitars and a new producer. "Soft Things", indeed. Perhaps the record company was trying to refine their sound to fit a more commercial means, and they were starting to win the battle, but there’s enough good songwriting to cover it up. Move on to this if you loved Freedom of Choice as much as I did, since it's the one that's most similar to that record.
Oh, No! It's Devo (1982)
"Oh, no" is right - it sounds like Warner Bros. was really pressuring the group to follow-up "Whip It", and while there are a lot of good attempts here ("Big Mess", "That's Good"), the use of the same drumbeat and tempo over and over can makes this album seem very one-note. It's danceable and fun, but not very substantial, and doesn't really hold up to repeat listenings. But it’s not the train wreck it could have been, with some energy and a renewed sense of playfulness (which may be due to acquiring Cars producer Roy Thomas Baker), so there’s a lot of good stuff to be found here - "Speed Racer" is hilarious, and "I Desire", with lyrics written by a would-be assassin, is genuinely spooky. It's hard to single out any low points, but it's telling that Weird Al's Devo parody "Dare to be Stupid" is better than most of the songs on here. The exceptions are the anthemic "That's Good" which mines the same type of sarcastic humor as "Beautiful World" (and will also bounce around in your head for days), and "Big Mess", a great tune with lyrics based off a bizarre letter sent to a radio station. On the other hand, forgettable filler tracks like "Patterns" and "Deep Sleep" are the kind of thing that Freedom of Choice-era Devo never would have done, and it's starting to feel like they just wanted to fill out the album. The production is clearer this time, but it doesn't do much but showcase how dated this kind of dinky synth-pop has become. Also, there are nearly no guitars at all on this album, which takes away any of the power this album might have had. At least they seem to be having fun ("Explosions"), and for that I suppose this is worth checking out. Contains lots of bonus tracks, mostly pointless "Peek-a-Boo" dance remixes, along with the B-side "Find Out", which tops much of the album material.
The downward slide continues, and if you didn’t much like the fun and carefree sound of Oh, No, you won’t like this at all. At this point, the group is essentially a parody of what they used to be, and fell off the map commercially - this was hardly promoted, didn't produce any real singles, and was hardly toured. They can still churn out catchy synth-pop tunes, but there’s a number of duds (“Puppet Boy”), and without Baker, the band’s sound hits a new low - some of the synths sound like children’s toys, and there’s no power to the mix at all, with the glossy production covering up most of the personality the band may have brought to the table. I'll bet this sounded dated the day it came out - I can't see how the band would be satisfied with the sound here, so my only conclusion is that they really didn't care anymore. Still, like all Devo albums, there are some addictive tunes here, and I’d say there’s usually at least one good idea in almost every track. Unfortunately they don’t really know yet how to build around them (“Jurisdiction of Love”, “Don’t Rescue Me” “C’mon”) leaving only a few real keepers - “The 4th Dimension” and “Here To Go” strike me immediately as being the best, with good vocal performances and full arrangements that highlight the good elements rather than bog them down. “Please Please” is another winner, but it’s an odd duck - it’s built around off a bass line that seems fit for 50's R&B and wraps a robotic vocal around it. Perhaps the weirdest is their cover of “Are You Experienced”, which turns the classic Hendrix tune into a weird dance tune - it’s not really that good, but it’s at least ambitious, and by default is one of the better things on here. There are enough strikes against this to rate it lower, and any non-fan will probably hate it, but in the end it’s not boring, and there’s enough good selections to justify listening to it. This is like their Electric Cafe...bad on its surface and nowhere near their better material, but there's enough catchiness and fun to make it worthy of a couple of listens. Either way, this was the end of the line for the band for a few years, as Warner dropped them, and Alan Myers quit soon after (finally realizing that he was slowly being replaced with drum machines over the last 7 years).
E-Z Listening Tape (1986)
Yep, this is for real - full-on elevator muzak versions of the band's hits. It's actually a little better than I expected, but besides one curiosity run through, there's few tracks you'll want to hear again - the jazzy groove of "That's Good" is nice, and I like the surf-rock "4th Dimension", but most of the other reconstructions are a joke (the title of "Shout!" is merely whispered this time). I guess it's worth downloading. When I saw them live, they played a few of these tunes while they set up, which I thought was pretty cute. I'm not rating this since I doubt Devo spent more than a weekend on it (or perhaps just Mothersbaugh, who would later make a bunch of music like this) and it isn't intended to be anything more than a novelty, but I shouldn't have to say not to pick this up unless you're a total devotee.
Total Devo (1988)
Maybe we shouldn't be blaming the decline of the band's output on the record companies after all – a newly reformed Devo (with Sparks drummer Dave Kendrick) signed to an independent label and created another album, and it’s a disaster. They finally brought back the guitars and gave them nothing to play, and in an attempt to blandify their sound they start adding in awful female vocals and uncharacteristic power ballads. This is 12 songs with about two or three hooks between them, including a cover of "Don't Be Cruel" which is so terrible that it doesn't even fall into "so bad it's good" territory. Okay, so "Happy Guy" is alright, but that's only because of the guitar riff, which is stolen from a song Gary Numan wrote when he wasn't even in his 20's! ("Bombers", if you're interested) And I guess "Disco Dancer" sticks with you a few minutes after you hear it, as obnoxious as that is, and it’s trying too hard to be single material. Lead-off track “Baby Doll” is even worse in that respect – you can tell they are trying to make the songs scale up a little and give the impression that a lot of work was put in, but production-wise this really isn’t much ahead of Shout (although most of the dinky synths are finally gone). Most of the rest is just soulless AOR rock that Devo have no place in - were they trying to prove their own point of de-evolution? While all the previous albums showed at least a few signs of creativity and good songwriting, this is just the sound of a band running on empty. Even the lyrics are trite ("Sexi Luv") and overly political, but not in a good way ("Some Things Don't Change" sounds like it was written by a 6th grader). Well, lucky you, this is out of print, so you don't have to worry about accidently buying it, and the band seems to just pretend it doesn't exist. Brutal.
Now It Can Be Told - Devo Live at the Palace (1989)
A live album in support of Total Devo? Look; I haven't really liked the group's latest releases either, but at least they know where they stand. Devo was washed-up at this point, and they seem to poke fun at themselves for it. Look at the first four songs; "Jocko Homo" played as a folky, acoustic guitar ballad (what?), "It Doesn't Matter to Me" (a cute new song, again played on an acoustic guitar), "Going Under" played E-Z Listening style (Mark: "There's people out there that just don't think that Devo is...cool anymore. So we're gonna do something right now that's so cool..."), then a slowed-down, purposely campy "Working in a Coalmine" (Jerry: "Mark, I am so fuckin' Deeee-vo!). After that they claim they need to "really get to work" and launch into a...Total Devo song. At least it's one of the best ones ("Happy Guy"). The truth is that they've pretty much turned into lounge lizards with cheap synthesizers and don't really ever get energetic, not even on the old numbers ("Uncontrollable Urge", "Gut Feeling" - "Slap Your Mammy" isn't even attempted). Some of the blame has to go to Dave Kendrick; he's not as technical of a drummer as Myers, and pretty much sticks to a straightforward whap-thud style on a loud drumkit. Tricky drumbeats like "Satisfaction" and "Whip It" have to be slowed down and sound nowhere near as effortless as they did when Myers played them. It also sounds like his kit has about four pieces. But hey, this is enjoyable nontheless - they generally stick to their better material ("That's Good", "Gates of Steel", "Jerkin' Back and Forth", etc.) and don't play too much of their recent stuff. The exception is the encore (Mark: "Wait a minute, do you really want more of this stuff? I don't believe it..."), a long and ambitious medley that mixes together parts of "Shout", "Disco Dancer", and a song from West Side Story. I was surprised by how well it works, especially the moment where "Shout" comes in. But overall, this is not really a great live album, unless the concept of E-Z Listening Devo really excites you for some reason.
Smooth Noodle Maps (1990)
The spud men give it one more try, and while it's not god-awful like Total Devo, it's really just one bad idea after another. What's with the goofy sound effects on the otherwise catchy "Jimmy"? The stupid vocals on "Pink Jazz Trancers"? Everything that happens during "Dawghouse"? If there's any selling point, it's the single "Post-Post Modern Man", which is full of good hooks and has some real energy, even if it sounds precisely like the "one last shot" single it is. At least there's one good synth-driven tune ("Stuck In a Loop") that recalls the old Devo, and "Devo Has Feelings Too" has an epic atmosphere and a good hook. The problem is that it contains the same 'big' production ideas that ruined a lot of albums in the second half of the 80's, which is disappointing since this came out in the 90's - gated drums, cheap synth effects, yadda yadda yadda. I don't have much more to say about it, other than that it contains an okay cover of Tim Rose's "Morning Dew". There's really nothing even remotely interesting about this album besides that it was their last for a long while - the single flopped and the album sold terribly, is very much out of print, and the band never plays anything from it anyway.
This was basically it for Devo for a long while, and although they never actually broke up, Mark Mothersbaugh started the Mutato Muzika company and became a much sought after composer of incidental music for TV shows and commercials, Casale started directing music videos, and the rest went back to their desk jobs, I guess. Devo would occasionally produce awful material for soundtracks (covers and 'remade' older tunes) and play a few high-profile events (such as Lollapalooza) but wouldn't start touring regularly or release any real new material until the late 00's...regardless, there have been a number of Devo-related releases since:
Adventures of the Smart Patrol (1996)
This is the soundtrack to a CD-ROM game that flopped miserably. 11 tracks, split between some really early stuff ("Mechanical Man", "U Got Me Bugged", with a new vocal track, a really early "Jocko Homo"), some of their hits, a couple of pieces from outside musicians, and two 'new' tracks which I suspect is really just stuff from the vault. Technically credited to the Smart Patrol but I've seen it listed under Devo. Probably tough to find now and not really worth seeking out.
Recombo DNA (2000)
Released by Rhino records, this is a big treat for the real Devo fans - it contains 42 unreleased takes from all throughout the band's career. Most of them are demos of album tracks, so if you liked the Hardcore Devo stuff, the entire first disc should be right up your alley. The main reason to buy this is for the songs that never got released, particularly "Recombo DNA" and the ultra-catchy "Modern Life", and there's some stuff that never could have been put on a studio disc like the carnival-themed "Bushwhacked" and the Booji-Boy cover of Dylan's "Gotta Serve Somebody". Lots of focus on the Freedom of Choice album, which is good (there's basically an entire alternate version of that album, including "Turn Around"). Also a lot of focus on the band's later period, which is not so good, as the demos sounded an awful lot like the awful finished product. Not to worry, as the first disc justifies the purchase well and there are some things worth saving from the second, particularly the first half. This collection says a lot more about the band than any of the studio albums did.
Pioneers Who Got Scalped (2000)
It seems like Rhino Records was on a mission to prove that Devo were better than their one-hit wonder status, which may explain this ridiculously long anthology (for a band that had about four good albums, anyway). Given the space of 50 tracks, it gets mostly everything you should hear from the band, but there are some weird choices here (no "Gut Feeling", but we do get "Triumph of the Will"?) It fits the same pattern as Recombo DNA - the first disc, which spans up to about 1982, is awesome, and the non-album single is great as well ("It Takes a Worried Man"). Besides three tracks from Oh, No!, disc two concentrates entirely on the bad side of the band, including a lot of really bad unreleased material ("I Wouldn't Do That to You"), the worst of which are covers ("Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka-Dot Bikini"...barf, "Bread and Butter"...barf, "Head Like a Hole"....double barf). Most of those were written for soundtracks to terrible movies such as Revenge of the Nerds 2: Nerds in Paradise or Meet Wally Sparks, which is fitting for the state the band was in. Interestingly enough "Head Like a Hole" is dated 1996, six years after the band's last full length. They also contributed a song to the Chef-Aid album around that time.
The Wipeouters - P'Twaaang! (2001)
Basically, this is members of Devo playing mostly instrumental surf-rock. Supposedly this was a band formed by the members of the group before Devo even existed, and even had Mark's Dad in it for a while. As far as I know Gerald only has involvement on one track. This sounds too professional to really be 'lost' material from the Mothersbaugh family, and "Rocket Power Theme" is obviously not from the 70's. I might review this later but it's really not that good, and the backstory is probably made up.
Jihad Jerry and the Evildoers - Mine is Not a Holy War (2006)
Not actually a Devo album, but it's close - this is Gerald Casale's side project, featuring every member of Devo but Mark, as well as a couple of fairly generic female vocalists ("The Evildoers", I guess). I'm not entirely sure what he's on about for a lot of this - from the photo stills of him dressed in a turban to the album title to the sweeping 'manifestos' that he was writing, it seems that this would be a politically or socially-aimed album, and indeed for the first track it is ("There was a time/when the world was colder"). Ahh, but the answer comes in the end of the song - "is it because the beginning was the end?" - yep, it's another album about de-evolution, one that basically tells us the world is ending and all we can do is cry about it. But the remaining songs are basically about sex, often reaching Zappa-like levels of crudeness. Yeah, it's confusing, but it's very Devo, although a lot less subtle than their golden period. Hell, a third of the tracks here ARE rare Devo tunes, including two from Hardcore ("I've Been Refused" and "I Need a Chick"...yep), one Oh, No!-era B-side ("Find Out") and one hard-to-find early cut ("Beehive"). There's a bluesy bent to some of it, mostly due to the backup vocals which were probably added because Jerry really isn't much of a vocal presence himself - giving him sole vocal duty would be like a B-52's album with only Fred Schneider on it. But there are a lot of synthesizers here, and the sound is more modern than you'd expect ("I've Been Refused" in particular is given a pounding dance-floor facelift, and is really the best thing here). The music takes more of a backseat to the lyrics, which are often pretty funny - there's a message somewhere in here, but it's very tongue-in-cheek; like the early, Hardcore Devo stuff, most of the lines are sexual double-entendres (and the rest sexual single-entendres). But it's not hard to figure out the real intentions here - "If The Shoe Fits" is a pretty unsubtle attack on Bush (written before someone tried to throw a shoe at him), but it's really not political - instead the lyrics are "Hey/What's Up/You little putz/Man you really suck". Probably the most hilarious moment is Jerry attempting a rap that intentionally clumsy ("All She Wrote"), and it's clear he didn't intend anyone to take this too seriously. So you can imagine the result - a dozen quirky and catchy tunes without too much replay value, though some of it would have made for good Devo-reunion fodder ("The Time is Now"). The upside is the instrumentation is full, avoiding the dinkiness that plagued some of the later albums, making it a solid update of the 'classic' Devo sound. The downside is that there's almost no imagination to any of this, and the backup vocalists are fairly second-rate. So it's a toss-off, but a toss-off that hits the right notes, and most Devo fans should find it plenty entertaining.
I don't have this and probably never will, but it's too weird not to mention. Basically Disney commissioned Devo to license out their songs to a band made out of 5 kids to release a CD/DVD and perform a few shows. So you get your favorite Devo songs like "Uncontrollable Urge" and "Freedom of Choice" performed by kids, with a few lyrical substitutions to remove the clever sexual double-entendres and sarcasm. This means that at the end of "Beautiful World", instead of the final line being "It's a beautiful world for you/it's not for me", it's "It's a beautiful world for you/I guess me too". Sometimes they have to change the lyrics because the lead singer was a girl ("Boy U Want"). They got a fair amount of publicity for this but as far as I know the project didn't continue past this initial release. As far as I know, Casale directed most of their videos.
Something For Everybody (2010) (see below)
In 2007, a new single called "Watch Us Work It" appeared out of nowhere for a Dell commercial, and soon Casale was claiming that Devo may or may not be working on a new album. In the months leading up to its eventual release three years later, Devo launched a huge promotional campaign as DEVO, INC., resulting in a whole bunch of videos and a mysterious billboard in Waco that apparently the locals were not happy with. Their (obviously satirical) goal was to appeal to as many people as possible with generic marketing techniques - they changed the color of their hats to blue (the most appealing color for consumers), and put a heavily-photoshopped "sexy girl" on the cover. The biggest news was the 'song study' online urging listeners to pick the best 12 out of the 16 available clips of songs to make the final album (although they basically ignored the results), and soon after the album was actually released. I realize this doesn't seem to have much to do with the actual music, but it may explain why they made this their most glossy and bland album yet. That lies mostly with the production - there are no real standout elements since everything is frustratingly turned up to maximum volume, making it seem like the drums, synths, guitars, and vocals are all fighting to be in the center of the mix. Essentially, it's mixed more for radio and clubs and less for home stereos. The sad thing is that these are some of the best songs they've come up with since New Traditionalists, so I wish they didn't hurt your ears when you listened to them; even at a low volume this is a headache.
Musically, I'd say this is most similar to Oh, No, It's Devo!; nothing particularly ambitious, but full of good hooks and easy to dance to. It may be more addictive, too - leadoff single "Fresh" is certainly catchy (though not really single-worthy), while "What We Do" and "Don't Shoot (I'm A Man)" are top-notch electropop and should remain in your head for months. A lot of the better material is like that - instantly accessible, but good enough to leave room to grow on you over time ("Human Rocket", "March On"). Production aside, not much has changed in the last 20 years - the synth tones are louder but aren't really much different than what they were using before, and that's usually a good thing (the chiptune-like blips in "Mind Games" are my favorite thing about the song). There's a decent amount of guitar work in here, although it's not really a 'lead' instrument, it's nice to see the brief guitar solos are back. Still, "Watch Us Work It" (which didn't even make the official album, despite gathering the most votes!) was the only riff-rocker they recorded, and I wish there were more. The real standout (for Devo) is "No Place Like Home", which is actually kind of a sad piano ballad (which later adds a kickdrum), and may prove to be their lasting message (the way Mark sings "maybe it really is okay" makes it sound like he's finally come to grips with his apocalyptic vision). But otherwise, this is purposely bland lyrically ("Please Baby Please"), but there are a few gems here and there - the "don't tase me bro" reference in "Don't Shoot" is pretty clever, even if the song is probably about the Kent State massacre. Ultimately, what prevents this album from reaching its potential is a stretch of bland, forgettable tunes on the second half (tracks 7-10), bottoming out on "Cameo", which is as awful and pointless a tune as Devo ever wrote, and you have to wonder why they included it (it was originally voted off). The weird thing is that if you just straight up replaced them all with the four songs that didn't make the cut (which you can find on a deluxe version), you do end up with a better and more consistent album, which I'd rate a half star higher than the standard version.
If you're wondering what's with the three different versions of this, it has to do with the song study they did. The standard release is sequenced the best (starting with "Fresh" and ending with "March On"), but it completely ignores the results of the study, including three of the four tracks that weren't voted in ("No Place Like Home", "March On", "Cameo"). There's a "song study" version, which is also 12 tracks, including the songs in order of how many votes they recieved, so the sequencing is not really too great, ending with "Human Rocket". The deluxe version simply has the standard release plus the four bonus tracks, but doesn't bother to resequence anything ("March On" was clearly written to be the closer). Since there's no clear-cut "best" version out there, the best idea is just to get the deluxe version and make your own.