Devo: New Traditionalists

Devo, New Traditionalists (1981)

Since I’m on my major DEVO kick at the moment, I thought I would just go through all their albums. Today’s killer Devo record: New Traditionalists from 1981.

New Traditionalists took more than one listen for me to really click with it. On first listen, it sounded a little flat, a little dull, sandwiched between the quasi-industrial sound of Oh, No! It’s DEVO and the guitar-synth pop hooks of Freedom of Choice. I wrote this first impression off as exhaustion from listening to too many Devo records at once. Also, it was 4:00 am. Everything turns to mush in your head by that time of night.

So a couple days later, I came back with fresh ears, and was hooked. The first song, the single, “Through Being Cool,” sounds a little off, but it’s really just different, and it gets stuck in your head before long. You’ll notice that singing duties are split among band members on New Traditionalists, giving a real variety to the singing (Mark Mothersbaugh, skilled as he is, always sings in the same high range).

The balance between guitars and electronic synthesizers has begun to shift away from the guitars on this album, clearly foreshadowing where the next album would go. This has always been Devo’s plan, to get away from the guitar-and-drums sound, and into new territory. So perhaps there’s less of that punkish vibe, and more of those magnificent hooks. So what?

Still, there are some absolutely killer guitar leads on this album. I’d wager that U2 were big fans; you can almost hear The Edge taking down the notes for U2’s foray into electronic rock in the 1990s. They even seem to have captured Devo’s sense of satire and cynicism, which cuts sharper on New Traditionalists than any other album save their first. These guys were grouchy and not ready for happy-go-lucky, singalong pop.

Maybe I’m just nostalgic because this all sounds like the music from those early Sega Genesis videogames. Remember videogame music? I miss that. I truly love the amazing electric sounds coming from the speakers, and the satirical, smart-ass lyrics (clearly designed to throw off anyone who jumped on the “Whip It” bandwagon, expecting a cheeky novelty act). This new wave pop bears claws and teeth.

Aside from the original vinyl LP, the definitive version of New Traditionalists must be the late ‘90s CD release on Henry Rollins’ record label, Infinite Zero. This version, which went out of print far too soon, includes the single, “Working in a Coal Mine” (recorded for the Heavy Metal movie soundtrack), a crazed, surreal sonic assault called “Mecha Mania Boy,” and “Nu-Tra Speaks,” a short comedy skit involving a space alien plugging the new album. Sadly, these three tracks are missing from the current CD release. What justice is that? Your best bet is to score the Infinite Zero disc on Ebay, download a copy over the internet (ahem), or score the Rhino Vinyl LP reissue, which sounds crazy good.

As a boy, I once saw this music video on MTV where people dressed up as giant bugs were kicking each other’s butts. I have no idea who created that, but it’s just the sort of thing you’d expect Devo to do. The only difference, of course, is that they would also send some kicks to the Moral Majority and Reagan’s America, and then laugh at the audience for being so easily taken in by grifters, the ninnies and the twits.

End of sermon, kids. Get your grubby paws on New Traditionalists by any means necessary.

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