Record Review: DEVO – Smooth Noodle Maps

Restless Records | US | CD | 1994 | 7 72757-2

Restless Records | US | CD | 1994 | 7 72757-2

DEVO: Smooth Noodle Maps US DLX CD [1994]

  1. Stuck In A Loop
  2. Post-Post Modern Man
  3. When We Do It
  4. Spin The Wheel
  5. Morning Dew
  6. A Change Is Gonna Cum
  7. The Big Picture
  8. Pink Jazz Trancers
  9. Jimmy
  10. DEVO Has Feelings Too
  11. Dawghaus
  12. Post-Post Modern Man [macro post modern mix]
  13. Post-Post Modern Man [neo post modern mix]
  14. Post-Post Modern Man [ultra post modern dub]

Well, this has been a long time coming. I’ve only entertained notions of hearing this in the last year or two. For 23 of the last 25 years, I have been content to sit this one out! The appearance in the bins of “Smooth Noodle Maps” while browsing in Lunchbox Records was the point to no longer stay my hand. I would now finally hear the DEVO album that had scared me off of them for many years back in 1990. But the drama began first with the single released from this album.

devo - postpostmodernmanUSCD5AThe CD single for “Post-Post Modern Man” came down the pike in advance of the album itself in 1990. I bought it as I was glad to soak up domestic CD singles in a world where $10-12 imports were the norm. I was only happy until I listened to it! Seven interminable mixes of a song that overstayed its welcome the first time one heard it! It sure sounded like the band had been boning up on their folk music canon with this knockoff of the hoary “If I Had A  Hammer!” At the time, I wrote a scathing, writing-them-off review of it in the fanzine I was putting out with a friend. I never bothered with the album. This changed last week.

It began inauspiciously with “Stuck in A Loop.” The bright, glaring digital stacked digital synths and strictly by the numbers bass synth loops and drums may have been commentary on the title of the song, but the overall vibe clearly illustrates why DEVO began losing their luster at a precipitous rate once they found their new voice on 1980’s “Freedom Of Choice” album. That album was a fresh sound of 1980 but a decade later, almost all pop music had appropriated its clean, plastic mix of synths and dance beats. Until Mark Mothersbaugh began singing on this track, it could have been any contemporary dance pop of the time. Let’s say… The Jets. Generic R+B/new jack swing/ whatever the hell they called it back then.

With the compositional modus operandi having been adopted far and wide, the only way that this one time confrontational band could differentiate itself was with their once-provocative artistic point of view. Unfortunately, apart from the conceit of the title “Stuck In A Loop,” which referenced programming techniques extrapolated to describe emotional states, that was as good as things got here.

The pedestrian guitar solos that closed out this song also pointed out to how the mighty had fallen. Where they once used heavily treated guitars to bracing effect, the tired riffing here was an embarrassment to the once innovative group. Both times I have listened to this song I have checked the playing time around the 3:00 mark because by that point it really sounded as if the track had lasted twice that time. When it seemed to finally end at 3:51 it belied the tracks actual brevity.

Elsewhere, the LP version of “Post-Post Modern Man” at under the three minute mark, seemed to just end with an abrupt edit like some half-finished song they couldn’t be bothered to complete. “When We Do It” was a truly banal song from these once-sexually frustrated geeks.  The morse-code synths that drove this song, were the first urgent sounding thing here; too bad about the lyrics! The rest of the track’s sound design was just as tired as the lyrics.

The nadir must have surely been the obvious cover song, “Morning Dew.” It sounded like a late 60s West Coast Psych song but I was shocked to find out that one Bonnie Dobson had recorded it in 1976; a good nine years later than it sounded, from the lyrics. Everyone from  Lulu to The Grateful Dead [let that sink in good and hard…] have covered this song. I can’t imagine why DEVO felt the need. It stuck out like a sore thumb here, that’s for certain! The faux harpsichord does it no favors.

The one slightly odd thing here was “Pink Jazz Trancers,” which had a queer varispeed vocal hook and a jazz piano middle eight that managed to sound slightly inspired to break the increasingly rigid DEVO mold. There’s a brief bit of dialogue between Mark and Gerald prior to the annoying “Jimmy” which takes aim at a far smaller target than this band once made their stock in trade. The refrain of “Jimmy’s in a wheelchair and I don’t care” coupled with a truly annoying synth hook just conspire to lie on the ground like a dead opossum, reeking in the mid day sun. The closing “Dawghaus” was the once proud band descending into novelty material.

Adding insult to injury were the three [long] remixes of “Post-Post Modern Man” added to the brief running time of this typically scant album by the band. they add over 15 minutes of filler mix amounting to almost a 50% increase in the disc’s running time! A scandal. The fact that this album can make the anemic “Shout” sound like a proper DEVO album in retrospect illuminates the crux of the problem here. By 1990 they had given up trying to get their point of view across, and instead they were trying for another freak hit like “Whip It.” Much like yesterday’s artist, Thomas Dolby, when unexpected hits nip at the heels of performers who have perhaps envisioned a less hectic fringe existence, the unexpected taste of success has a way of corrupting the act to their detriment.

It took Thomas Dolby nine years until he gave up attempting to achieve another freak pop-funk quasi-novelty single and returned to his natural songwriting voice. It would take DEVO another 20 years before they could finally leave the debacle of this career-killer of an album behind and release the “Something For Everybody” album in 2010 that reintroduced them to a new generation of sarcastic wiseguys and malcontents to whom the band rightly should have been seers. But that’s an album I’ve yet to hear. Still. So after this album, I should make obtaining a copy a “sooner rather than later” phenomenon.

– 30 –

About postpunkmonk

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7 Responses to Record Review: DEVO – Smooth Noodle Maps

  1. Jon J says:

    Don’t let Smooth Noodle Maps scare you off getting Something for Everybody. Something was at least a return to Oh No! It’s Devo era sound, ie. slightly tired schtick, but still enjoyable. I was really surprised when I heard it.


    • postpunkmonk says:

      Jon J – Well, the time is nigh, isn’t it? I’ll probably buy the next copy I see. It didn’t hurt that the first store I shopped in at Charlotte had it for $4.99 new and sealed. That was the thing that struck me about Manifest. The price of new CDs was exceptionally low on catalog items.


  2. Echorich says:

    Nope, nope, nope…Something For Everybody, sure, anytime, but Smooth Noodle Maps, nope, nope, nope.


    • postpunkmonk says:

      Echorich – I had to go and find out on my own, didn’t I? Couldn’t leave well enough alone. The truth of the matter is, that I’ve owned “Total DEVO” ever since its release and have always really liked it. In the years between 1983 and 2003, it was the only canonical DEVO album I had bought. When I finally got “Shout” about a decade ago, “Total DEVO” put “Shout” very much in the shade to these ears. Make that double for “Smooth Noodle Maps!!”


  3. I think you’ll be pleased with Something for Everybody, even though THE strongest track Devo has written since 1983 (“Watch Us Work It”) isn’t even on the album. I think SfE is actually one of the strongest overall Devo albums, with some tracks growing on me while others hit the right button immediately.


  4. Vlad says:

    Can’t remember a single song from that album, having heard it several times over the years. I think they should’ve stopped after “Shout” – which was a very weak record and clearly indicated a sharp decline in quality (I hold “Oh No It’s Devo” as a pretty good and strong album, by the way). Those late 80s albums sound like afterthoughts or a contract fulfillment. 2000s comeback, on the other hand, is a good one. I now think that if they’d have stopped in 1983 and came back with “Something for Everybody” they’d be held in a higher esteem now, without that mid-80s quality slump.


    • postpunkmonk says:

      Vlad – I think you hit the nail on the head there. “Shout” was an indication that all was not well. Had they hung up their gear after the not embarrassing “Oh No! It’s DEVO” and come back in 2010 it would have been a far more seamless phenomenon. As it was there was dead weight of the late 80s to overcome for the band. I must go on record as liking “Total DEVO” quite a lot. In fact, it’s my favorite album following “New Traditionalists,” which it resembles to my ears. But for the sake of argument, I recognize that many don’t see it the same way.


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