Thursday, July 18, 2013

Fred Roth Revue's Fred Not Amused on CD

Remember New Wave? It was an odd, catch-all genre in the late '70s and early '80s that was designed to label new music that sounded considerably different from dinosaur rock, yet wasn't quite harsh enough to call punk. New Wave usually meant a band was quirky, favored synthesizers over guitars and had a angular, high-fashion sensibility that was at odds with the normal rock-and-roll swagger. It was neat, well-mannered and had its tongue planted in its cheek. It wasn't serious, but it was necessary.

In just a few years, New Wave lost its meaning as musical genres became more and more fragmented. Today the term is about as relevant as rock. But once in a while, you'll hear a band that reminds you of those days when bands tried to be different--not because they were trying to stand out but because the norm was so incredibly boring. Fred Roth Revue, fortunately, is one of those bands.

This Seattle band recaptures one of the great qualities of New Wave bands: deadpan humor. In the opening song, "Tomorrow," singer Fred Roth starts off with "See that little girl inside? I think she smells. See that little boy inside? I think he's fat." Is Fred being ironic about the way our society judges people by their appearance? I doubt it--he's just getting your attention. If he is being sardonic, perhaps he's making fun of all those indie bands who hide behind their heavy-handed, impenetrable lyrics. FRR lays it on the line--if the song is called "Red Vespa," it's about a red scooter and not about our need to reduce our carbon footprint.

In true New Wave tradition, all of the songs here are fast, catchy and short. No one's trying to impress you with musical virtuosity here--each of the band members (which include Fred on bass, Scott Griggs on drums, Merch DeGrasse on guitars, Jim Knodle on trumpet and Chris Guthrie on keyboards) have a role to play. There's no room for extended jams, odd interludes or freaky, disjointed detours. When the song is done, it's done.

If this sounds superficial, you'd be wrong. Sure, the Revue is what we used to call a party band, a group to see if you wanted to bounce around the dance floor and work up a sweat. But listening to Fred Not Amused reminds me too much of bands like Blondie, Ramones and the B-52s--think of the first two to three albums from each and how they were masterpieces of simplicity as well as incredibly stripped down and fun--and how music should free your mind and your body and improve your mood just a bit. Underneath it all, however, someone's trying to shake things up and change your mind. Is there really a point in closing an album with a dreamy, strange rendition of "Frere Jacques" called "Fare Oh Jake Oh" other than being a goof?

Perhaps we'll look on Fred a few years from now and say, "that's what Fred meant." Then we'll smile knowingly.

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