This eight-piece LA outfit (with a three-man horn section) started out trying to be a West Coast answer to XTC and Devo, but suffered from a surplus of studied wackiness/quirkiness and managed to hide solid cleverness behind overproduction and hamminess. While singer, chief songwriter and iconic frontman Danny Elfman grew to become king of the soundtracks, Oingo Boingo plied its trade with little modification or recognition.
The EP, all 10 inches of it, is the band’s most succinct engagement. The four cuts belie the size of the lineup — a trio might have made these long slices of mild perversity. The album that followed, however, plays up OB’s flaws, letting contrived bits diminish the impact of demi-clever lyrics and thoroughly competent music. The only track that stands out is “On the Outside,” and it succeeds because it sounds normal. Despite obvious talent, Only a Lad is a waste.
Taking a turn towards synth-funk, Nothing to Fear is more likable yet still sounds phony. A couple of the tunes, especially the title cut, are forceful enough to be exciting. When not pushing pressurized dance rock, Oingo Boingo revert to their previously established lighter style, and the horns play it subtle rather than brassy. Better, but still a derivative disappointment.
Electronic music veteran Robert Margouleff produced Good for Your Soul and trimmed some of the usual excess, giving Oingo Boingo a streamlined and powerfully driven attack. The timely “Wake Up (It’s 1984)” and “Who Do You Want to Be” are among the most invigorating and engaging things the band has ever done. There’s still significant quantities of chaff, but on this outing the wise-guy dance-rock largely works.
Elfman made So-lo with five members of the band, taking a more synthesized approach. “Gratitude” is a brilliant construct combining Elfman’s best melody and absurd vocals in one wacky tour de force; other tracks (a ballad, a raveup, etc.) are more like Oingo Boingo’s work. Displaying Wall of Voodoo B-movie aspirations, Elfman lacks the focus or vision to counteract his grandiose, theatrical instincts. (Of course, figuring out how to make a living on those instincts was a lot smarter for him than working on means of suppression.)
Dispersing rumors of nonexistence, Oingo Boingo returned with their least obnoxious record yet. Dead Man’s Party benefits from one captivating soundtrack single (“Weird Science”) and a couple of other strong songs (including “Stay,” a soulful “Help Me” and the Akron- oriented title track).
Did Spike Jones mix Boi-ngo or what? Instruments fly out of the speakers at crazy angles as if this were a stereo effects demonstration record. The absurdly busy arrangements make the songs take a back seat to the studio showboating as each guitar chord, horn toot and drum beat calls attention to itself. Elfman is really in control here, and his mastery of this hyperkinetic niche (at times it sounds like two coordinated recordings being played simultaneously) is an awesome individual accomplishment. The LP jitterbugs, bounces and slides from start to finish, leaving listeners either happily exhausted or utterly exasperated.
With Elfman’s career as a composer of film and television scores in superstar overdrive (the Music for a Darkened Theatre compilation — orchestral excerpts from Batman, Dick Tracy, Scrooged, The Simpsons and many more — provides a summary of his soundtrack work that no one need actually hear), he still finds time to fit the band into his schedule. And Boingo — with just two personnel changes in eleven years — just keeps on keeping on, issuing a double-live set (recorded, without the distraction of an audience, in a Hollywood rehearsal studio), a straightforward studio retrospective of the band’s A&M era and Dark at the End of the Tunnel, an all-new LP of Elfman originals which won’t surprise anyone at all familiar with the group’s past work.