Thursday, February 20, 2014

Throwback Thursday: Devo "Freedom Of Choice" (1980)

Cover of "Freedom of Choice Deluxe Remast...
Cover via Amazon
"The beginning was the end..."  - Devo, "Gates Of Steel"

Guitarist and founding member of Devo, Bob Casale (a/k/a Bob #2), passed away on Tuesday at the far too young age of 61. In his memory, there's been a lot of the Spudboys' music being played around Ruttville this week.  If you can manage to sidestep 1984's misbegotten Shout and the contemporarily released non-LP single "Theme From Doctor Detroit," it's pretty tough to go wrong anywhere in the Devo catalog (and even Shout has its moments: the title track, "Here To Go" and the wacky re-imagining of Jimi Hendrix's "Are U Experienced?")  Of course, Devotees will tend to lean heavily on the first two albums, and it's tough to argue with the simply classic opening salvo of Devolutionism, Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo or its lesser-known but every bit as wonderful follow-up Duty Now For The Future.  But for me, their third album, 1980's Freedom Of Choice, remains the go-to record when I need a good shot of Devo's unique lunacy.

Part of my affinity for this album lies in the fact that in a collection that now boasts close to 3500 titles, Freedom Of Choice was one of my earliest additions.  The record has been getting airplay in my home for over thirty years!  Beyond that, the album is just flat out excellent from start to finish.  Not a clinker to be found here.  And while it was not an obvious grab at commercial acceptance or mainstream radio airplay, it is Devo at their most "pop," their most accessible, and it does contain their most well-known song, "Whip It."

Jerky, robotic rhythms are still the rule on Freedom, but the sound is less antiseptic than on the first two albums.  The yellow radiation suits were abandoned in favor of the famous flowerpot hats, a more humanized visual to match the more accessible sound.  While traditional guitars are certainly background players here, Devo had not yet gone fully synthesized. (That would happen with the next album, New Traditionalists.) The result is a fuller, tougher sound than is heard on any other album bearing the Devo name.

"Whip It"  is only the centerpiece of the album because history painted it that way.  It's buried in the middle of side one, just another track on album full of hook-laden, energetic, synth-heavy tunes.  If "Whip It" scored so big, it remains a puzzle why similarly styled tracks like "Girl U Want," "Freedom Of Choice" or "Gates Of Steel" weren't every bit as big.  For those looking for the expected Devo goofiness, "Ton O' Luv" and "That's Pep!" fit the bill nicely; the surprisingly touching "Snowball" shows that the previously emotionless Spuds know heartbreak as well as any of us.  Even apparent throwaways "Cold War" and "Don't You Know" are good enough to be lead tracks on virtually any other New Wave bands' albums.  And the final one-two punch of "Mr. B's Ballroom" (with its hiccuppy "whoa-whoa-oh-oh" chorus) and "Planet Earth" (not the same song as the identically titled Duran Duran single) is simply excellent.

Unlike many other New Wave albums of its time, Freedom Of Choice really doesn't sound terribly dated today.  Well worth adding to your own collection if you don't already own it.

R.I.P., Bob #2.

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