This is Devo? D-E-V-O?

The underlying concept is bizarre. Covering DEV2.0 -- Alt music pioneers Devo's foray into kid's music -- in CityBeat seems blasphemous, absurd or maybe both. How do we get our minds around a p

Oct 18, 2006 at 2:06 pm

The underlying concept is bizarre. Covering DEV2.0 — Alt music pioneers Devo's foray into kid's music — in CityBeat seems blasphemous, absurd or maybe both.

How do we get our minds around a product that casts Mousketeers as cynical, counter-culture cartoons? It's as if the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers or Maus were starring in a Nickelodeon kids show. Whatever the reason, Disney has jumped onto the Devolution bandwagon, and the results will shock and awe fans of both band and Mouse.

Let's review. Devo's underlying premise was that humanity is "de-evolving" and mutating to support an emerging corpocracy. The band blasted into public view in the late 1970s on Saturday Night Live, performing a broken, jerky cover of the Rolling Stones' "Satisfaction" clad in radiation suits and playing hacked instruments. Their work encompassed film and video from the outset.

The band's videos and no-budget films are legendary.

They presented a dark, plastic vision of post-industrial End Times. Over time that vision devolved to the now-familiar inverted flowerpot-hats and high-budget video stardom. By the 1990s, founder Mark Mothersbaugh was mostly retired from costume-driven music, migrating to work on TV and film scores.

"Devolution" was a hard sell by the time the information age gelled in the early 1980s, which might explain the more comic, less conceptual direction of the band's later work. Technology created an illusion of parallel cultural progress. Music and video production were moving to the desktop, and new connections were forming between people, culminating in the World Wide Web. But as the 21st century dawned, with no real change in the human condition, the "Devo" concept grew new legs. In the age of TiVo, loops and links, DEV2.0 makes sense: Fun, poppy songs are delivered with machine-like perfection and a shiny plastic gloss.

So what about the music? While it's Devo through and through (the original band plays most of the instruments, leaving vocals to the 2.0 kids), the performances show a tightness entirely missing from the original versions. Guitars sound much bigger and, well, better. The oddball keyboards are more in control (and tune) than they were in the '70s.

2.0 relies on a pubescent female vocalist, Nicole, whose voice lines up neatly with the originals. But Mothersbaugh was an oddball with coke-bottle lenses and bad haircuts; the new crew isn't just fresh and young but attractive and hyper-normal. The graphics too are slicker, the video cleaner and, of course, the animation is top shelf. This makes sense for a Disney product, of course, but THIS IS DEVO! D-E-V-O.

Has devolution reversed? No way. There's something very right about "Devo for Kids."

The CD contains 12 songs that include Devo's greatest hits, including slightly-reworked tracks like "Boy U Want." The CD tracks are fun, but the DVD features are better. The tone and tenor are nothing like Devo of old, but neither is it straight Disney. Mothersbaugh is interviewed by the new band, and his stories of growing up geek in Akron are both touching and funny. The packaging is very nice, combining an audio CD with a DVD chock full of videos and extras in a CD-sized triple-gatefold (a "digipak").

The decision to combine CD and DVD not only lets me write about it but also adds value and makes the whole thing worth buying. Considering the target audience (kids), that's an important detail! Similarly, the package and the disc point fans to, a critical feature today.

On the other hand, the booklet is light on credits and heavy on graphics. While this is consistent with the band's classic albums, the focus on the cute performers can be disturbing if you listen to the words. It's easy to imagine future Devos with yet another line-up, as this group reaches puberty. So the emphasis on the individuals works against the whole. Still, the cover photo and artwork don't stray far from the concept. This CD/DVD combo fits in a CD rack and looks at home next to Duty Now for the Future or Freedom of Choice.

DEV2.0 might be the perfect cure for Barney. What parent hasn't been trapped with the purple dinosaur or one of his insipid, repetitive rivals? With 90 minutes of video and just under an hour of music on the CD, DEV2.0 is child-friendly and fun. What was subversive in the '70s is today's conventional wisdom. Take the familiar "Whip It" or "Freedom of Choice." A positive, can-do parable for kids, it's an ironic shot at nonsensical values for adults. The new format plays up the former and enhances the latter.

At first glance there's little here for 1.0 fans. But new versions of old songs with fresh voices are just hooks. The interviews and even some of the graphics reveal a side never seen in the groups many films, interviews and writings.

Mothersbaugh gently reminds us of how we got to where we are by telling us where he came from. It's a side of the band that's entirely absent in the group's own releases, including two recent DVDs. Sure, this is a program for kids. But its jarring contrasts — between image and ideas, singers and words, media and message — work on many levels.

So when you think about it, DEV2.0 is a natural extension of the catalog. How many other Punk/New Wave bands had a "Corporate Anthem" and regularly appeared on mainstream TV shows, commercials and even kids shows in their heyday?

Devo was a dystopic cartoon set in Rust Belt ruins. DEV2.0 is that dystopic corpocracy realized in bright, Disney colors. Welcome to the future!

DAVE DAVIS makes records and designs new media at Sound Images.