October 10th, 2008
Artist: Was (Not Was)
Catalog No.: RCD 10943
Detroit group Was (Not Was), featuring David Weiss (a.k.a. David Was) and Don Fagenson (a.k.a. Don Was), has been popular in alternative circles since the release of their self-titled 1981 debut album. Known for satirical songs rendered in soulful glory by front man Sweet Pea Atkinson, the group defies categorization, running the gamut between R&B, funk, soul, and rock, and occasionally throwing in some jazz licks for good measure. Their 1983 sophomore album, Born to Laugh at Tornadoes (which should be a Midwestern classic), featured guest appearances by Ozzy Osbourne, Mitch Ryder, and, believe it or not, Mel Tormé. In 1988 they released What Up, Dog?, achieving heavy airplay with the singles “Spy in the House of Love” and “Walk the Dinosaur.” Several music videos from the album, including the title track, were also featured regularly on MTV. The last Was (Not Was) album, Are You Okay?, appeared in 1990 and included such irreverent tracks as “I Blew Up the United States” and “In K-Mart Wardrobe.”
Now, after a nearly twenty year hiatus, Was (Not Was) is back together in all its quirky glory with Boo! Sir Harry Bowens and Donald Ray Mitchell join Sweet Pea Atkinson on lead vocals, David McMurray contributes both sax and horn arrangements, and the back-up band includes Wayne Kramer on guitar, Marcus Miller on bass, the great Booker T. Jones on the Hammond B3, James Gadson on drums, and a host of other session musicians.
The album gets off to a funky start with “Semi-interesting Week,” which includes a chorus that would make a great mantra: “So far, so good / Now I’m on some kind of streak / Yes, It’s been a semi-interesting week.” From here the group segues into “It’s a Miracle,” the kind of the retro soul number for which Sweet Pea is ideally suited, and then veers off into heavy funk on “Your Luck Won’t Last.” An acoustic piano intro leads into the haunting ballad “From the Head to the Heart,” chronicling the accidental death of a young thief. On the bluesy “Big Black Hole,” McMurray is offered a chance to shine, his wailing sax punctuating the reflective verse: “In the big black hole / I count the crimes I have committed / Just to Have a good time.” The monologue on “Needletooth” glories in its techno-inspired distortion.
The album finally returns to its funky R&B roots, unleashing the vocals of Atkinson, Bowens and Mitchell on “Forget Everything,” “Crazy Water,” and a cover of Dylan’s “Mr. Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore.” It seems that every Was (Not Was) project features a surprise guest, and Boo! is no exception. The final track, “Green Pills in the Dresser” was tailor made for Kris Kristofferson, who intones in a throaty growl, “Green pills in the dresser / Grey clouds in the sky / Prisoners on the rampage / It’s Christmas in July / Flypaper headlines / The Prince is in a fix / The midgets are unruly / And the river’s turned to bricks.”
Here is the first video release from the album, a performance of “Crazy Water” ((c) 2008 Rykodisc, Inc. All rights reserved.)
The “Was Brothers” have certainly not lost their touch, offering up lyrics that are just as witty and cynical as ever. And if you’re a fan of great ‘70s R&B, Sweet Pea’s vocals will hit you like a blast from the past. My only complaint is that the fun ends all too soon, with the CD clocking in a bit under 50 minutes.
Posted by Brenda Nelson-Strauss
Review Genre(s): Rhythm & Blues, Soul, Funk