Los Angeles’ Wall of Voodoo made junk music that can be extremely entertaining as long as you don’t expect too much from it. Working in the same general cinematic groove as Devo, only taking their cues from Westerns and film noir rather than science fiction, Voodoo generated a stiff (though human) sound that furnished a vivid backdrop to Stanard Ridgway’s semi-catatonic vocals. Poised uneasily between machine music and rock’n’roll, Wall of Voodoo embodied the conflict between old and new for the serious-minded: classy Halloween music that’s scary, but pleasantly so.
The four-song debut EP (later expanded and reissued as The Index Masters) includes a wacked-out version of Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire.” The band displays more polish on Dark Continent, with tunes like “Back in Flesh” and “Full of Tension” benefiting from colorfully morose guitar and keyboards.
Call of the West‘s execution is livelier and more articulate, but just as spooky. It contains the now-classic “Mexican Radio,” which crystallizes the band’s loopy approach in one memorable number.
Ridgway left Wall of Voodoo in 1983 for a solo career; the band decided to replace him and continue. The 1984 compilation album, Granma’s House, contains all of Voodoo’s best tracks, from “Ring of Fire” to “Mexican Radio.”
Unveiling new singer Andy Prieboy and a new drummer (Joe Nanini had departed in the interim), Wall of Voodoo returned to action with Seven Days in Sammystown, their first new album in three years. Ridgway’s absence forced a major rethink of the band’s sound and purpose; the record is adequate, but somewhat short of character and thus uncompelling. “Far Side of Crazy” (ostensibly about John Hinckley, Jr.) and a dirgey cover of the old mining song “Dark as the Dungeon” are quite good, but the rest falls short. And Prieboy’s failed attempt to mimic Ridgway (on “Big City”) is a major faux pas.
The vanishing Devo left a wide open field of informed weirdness, but a uniformly costumed Voodoo failed to make anything more of the opportunity. Happy Planet reveals an intact sense of humor left dangling by an utter lack of demented invention. The band works over the Beach Boys’ “Do It Again,” converting it to their idiom but adding nothing substantial which would make it worth hearing; the rest of the album likewise takes aim at assorted cultural artifacts but lacks the requisite inspired oddness to make the songs truly original.
The Ugly Americans in Australia* is a rambunctious live disc recorded in Melbourne and (here’s where the asterisk comes in) Bullhead City, Arizona. Stripped of studio comforts, the quartet (plus keyboard guest) gamely confronts old material like “Far Side of Crazy,” “Mexican Radio” and “Ring of Fire” and introduces several newies. (The cassette and CD add “The Grass Is Greener” and “Pretty Boy Floyd.”)
It’s no coincidence that the lyrics on Ridgway’s The Big Heat album (the EP is a pre-LP teaser) are printed on the inner sleeve in prose format; the singer is a pulp novelist at heart. Proffered with his exaggerated side-of-the-mouth delivery and instrumentation that reaches for maximum film noir ambience, the songs recount amazing stories of crime, war and bizarre characters in uncommon and highly engaging fashion. The Big Heat is a rare record — one that will have you as interested in the lyrical action as its substantial musical attributes. If anything, Ridgway outdoes himself on Mosquitos, a record so chock full of atmosphere that it’s nearly visual. As before, Ridgway is more of a narrator than a singer, and he shows his skill as a song- and story-writer on nearly every cut. If The Big Heat was film noir, Mosquitos is The Last Picture Show.
Prieboy’s solo album starts off with a witless but powerful rendition of Canned Heat’s classic “On the Road Again” (hence the LP title) but then sticks to smart, full-bodied rock with Devoesque accents and offcenter lyrics for a while. (The low point comes early on, with “Tomorrow Wendy,” a totally stupid number about mortality sung with Johnette Napolitano of Concrete Blonde. Not surprisingly, she liked the song enough to cover it on her band’s Bloodletting.) From there, things spin further out, as Prieboy (whose personal stylistic orientation seems more Oingo Boingo than Wall of Voodoo) kicks out the conceptual jams with macho jive (“Man Talk”) set to dramatic round’em-up/move-’em-out music, cocktail party chatter over a driving piano line on “The New York Debut of an L.A. Artist (Jazz Crowd)” and, on one of two CD-only tracks, an operatic extravaganza entitled “Maybe That’s Not Her Head.” Strange but entertaining. The EP contains three non-LP tracks, including a duet with Napolitano on “Whole Lotta Love.”