1988, Music

What Up, Dog? (1988) by Was (Not Was)

Imagine if you can a musically less sophisticated but infinitely slicker, but lyrically more earnest Steely Dan, recording with the very latest in ’80s musical technology, and featuring mostly guest vocalists, and you maybe get some idea of what Was (Not Was) sounds like. You also have to up the R&B quotient while dropping the jazz influence. If that description sounds good to you, check this out. If it doesn’t sound good to you, stay far away.

R&B and some related genres (such as the blues, unfortunately) went through an awful phase starting in the late 1970s, when we got what we might call an over-professionalization, when everything had to sound slick and modern. Listen to most R&B and soul from the late ’70s on and you’ll have trouble thinking it’s the same thing as, say, Stax soul.

Was (Not Was) embrace this particular vibe, despite their artiness and quirks. They write lyrics that often don’t quite match the vibe of the music (much like Steely Dan and any other number of bands I don’t love who do this). Sometimes their singers sing these songs with pure earnestness and sometimes they sing them with a wink. And they put in weird arty bits here and there as if to try to convince you they are weirder or artier than their songs make them sound.

I really don’t know why this was popular or why people point this music out as if it’s something to get excited about. The production has dated horribly but, in addition to that, I can’t tell what they’re trying to do. They want you to dance to their music but they also want you to think, some of the time. And they don’t really find a middle ground between those two competing impulses like a band like Talking Heads does. Rather, it feels like their impulses are pulling them in two different directions, the result of either is not great.

These guys strike me as hipper-than-thou folks who don’t realize they are making bland, generic dance music that will be dated in a matter of years, but think they’re making great art.

Just really odd; a record that could only ever be made in the 1980s.


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