High-flying, cosmic thing

The Baltimore Sun

Sixteen years have passed since the B-52s fired up the party jams in the studio. The kitschy pop band's last album, 1992's Good Stuff, came and went. In the interim, the quartet - Cindy Wilson, Kate Pierson and Fred Schneider on vocals, and Keith Strickland on bass and guitar - toured regularly, filling clubs around the country and entertaining for private, lucrative corporate affairs.

Although the group has a long and colorful catalog of songs - including well-known hits such as 1979's "Rock Lobster" and 1989's "Love Shack" - the B-52s felt it was time for a new batch of tunes.

"We decided that if we were gonna continue to tour, we definitely needed some good new material," Wilson says with a high-pitched laugh.

So about four years ago, the members (Strickland lives in Key West, Fla., Pierson in Woodstock, N.Y., and Schneider in New York City) convened in Georgia, where Wilson lives and where the band formed in 1976.

Between performance dates, the group worked on Funplex. The album, released late last month by the New York-based Astralwerks label, is sleek and propulsive with glimmers of the band's past glory here and there. Most of the new songs mesh well with the Day-Glo vibe of the classic material - all of which the B-52s will perform Saturday at Washington's 9:30 Club.

"We wanted to keep the best elements but have modern beats," says Wilson, 51. "We took our time writing, though. We paid for the recording ourselves."

But there were some reservations about returning to the recording industry, which has splintered and struggled mightily since the group's last album.

"I thought this was the craziest time to put a record out with everything going down the tubes," Wilson says. "It was scary, watching the climate of the industry. But we surrounded ourselves with people who were confident. The people at Astralwerks are a great team. It's important to have a supportive team behind you, especially now."

The response to Funplex has been strong. The album entered Billboard pop charts at No. 11 and was the seventh most popular album on iTunes listings the week of release.

Before the group met and recorded the album in Georgia, Strickland, the band's musical director, composed and tweaked music at his home in Key West.

"We'd all write together, but Keith is really picky with the music," Wilson says. "He wants the music to be perfect. So we were waiting for him."

The results are mostly energetic, if at times forced. The first half of the 11-cut album is the strongest, bolstered by bright spots such as "Pump," "Hot Corner" and the title track. The energetic, shimmy-shimmy music is thoroughly modernized with generous use of synthesizers and drum machines. But the sparkly campiness and irreverent humor, long hallmarks of the B-52s, are still intact.

"I think people aren't writing us off as just a goofy band," Wilson says. "It's an art form, a strange panorama we're creating with our music and lyrics."

Although Funplex features nothing as immediate as, say, "Love Shack" or "Private Idaho," the CD is still a likable effort, brightened by Schneider's colorful barking and the taffy-sweet harmonies of Wilson and Pierson.

"We thought this record was a good vibe to put out there," Wilson says. "Things are so heavy, we need to try to have a good time. And we're committed to having a good time. We all feel like we're 13 years old."


The B-52s show at the 9:30 Club is sold out.

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