Three years ago, the good news for the B-52’s was that the band scored a hit single, ending its days as a cult act. The bad news was that the song was ”Love Shack,” a goofy and downright annoying track from its Cosmic Thing album. The B-52’s had long walked a zany line between ’60s rock-a-rama dance moves and new-wave irony. But with its inane lyrics and flabby musical hook, ”Love Shack” presented the group as little more than the wacky kitschmeisters of alternative party rock, with singers Fred Schneider and Kate Pierson its sardonic cheerleaders. A B-52’s Saturday-morning cartoon show didn’t seem too far off.
Sadly, the band is more than willing to accommodate its legion of new fans on Good Stuff. The album marks the first time the group has had to follow up a platinum album, and the B-52’s leave virtually nothing to chance. Although singer Cindy Wilson left the group last year, the album features the same two producers (Don Was and Nile Rodgers) as Cosmic Thing, and even the songs sound familiar: ”Hot Pants Explosion” is ”Love Shack” revisited, and each album contains a spacey instrumental. There has always been an element of shtick to the B-52’s, but Good Stuff reduces their sound — Schneider’s adenoidal bark, Pierson’s cliffs-of-Dover harmonies, the needles-and-pins guitar of Keith Strickland — to a dull formula.
The B-52’s are too smart to reduce themselves to self-parody, but their attempts to keep the party going on Good Stuff sound more forced than ever. As they hit middle age, Pierson and Schneider are sounding a little long in the beehive for cutesy novelty tracks like the unbearably coy title song (and first single) and ”Is That You Mo-Dean?” on which Schneider gets abducted by a UFO. (Forget N.W.A: The quickest way to incite violence in sensible pop fans is to subject them to the sound of Schneider’s flat, nasal whine.)
The best B-52’s songs — ”Private Idaho,” ”Rock Lobster” — can produce a giddy, silly high, but the group has also worked wonders when it cut the camp and played it straight. The mix of sweeping harmonies and sobering lyrics lent ”Roam” (the second hit from Cosmic Thing) a sense of depth often missing in the band’s earlier work. It’s hardly surprising, then, that the highlight of Good Stuff is not one of its goofy ditties but rather a Pierson showcase, ”Revolution Earth.” The song starts with an ersatz Indian raga chant that doesn’t bode well, but it soon turns into an ebullient splash of pop about sexual awakening (or reawakening). When Pierson builds a wall of overdubbed vocals on the chorus, the song springs to life. Schneider takes his first stab at a straight nontalking vocal on the gauzy, electronic-driven ”Dreamland.” His vocal is curiously characterless, given his regular style, but at least he’s trying.
If Good Stuff reveals anything new about the B-52’s, it’s that despite their arty bohemian image, they are basically retro-hippies. When Pierson and Schneider aren’t singing about aliens or short shorts, they’re imparting paisley-tinted slogans like ”We got to get it together with everyone else” and ”Flowered river carries us down to dreamland.” Are they being earnest or ironic? With the B-52’s, it’s become increasingly harder to tell — and on Good Stuff that may be the most insurmountable problem of all. C