The two guys who lead this band call themselves Don and David Was and pretend to be brothers, even though they’re not brothers and their real names are Don Fagenson and David Weiss. Clearly they’re joking. And yet — true to the spirit of their name — they’re also not joking. They write whimsical lyrics: The big smash from their 1988 album, What Up, Dog?, was called ”Walk the Dinosaur,” and another song, their dance hit ”Spy in the House of Love,” described a man and woman on a date as if they were secret agents probing each other for information. But Was (Not Was)’s music is serious funk and rhythm & blues. Two veteran soul singers, Sir Harry Bowens and Sweet Pea Atkinson, front the band, crooning and belting out the music that Don and David Was write.
The blend worked perfectly in What Up, Dog?, a disarming album, alternately funny and sad, and often both at once. But on Are You Okay?, the whimsy gets out of hand. Some of the lyrics string together disconnected images in the manner of a performance artist like Laurie Anderson, though without the evocative power: ”I was attending Mardi Gras with Fidel Castro/A buxom cross-dresser threw gold coins at our feet as we discussed the revolution.” Huh? (That’s from a number called ”I Feel Better Than James Brown.”)
One cut, ”Maria Novarro,” is unequivocally serious; it’s a propulsive song, full of jagged bass and drums, about a woman killed by her husband after police didn’t take the threat seriously. But generally there’s a numbing sense that, no matter how attractive a song may seem at the start, some kind of heavy-handed irony soon will intrude.
In the first single from the album — a remake of the Temptations’ 1972 hit ”Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone” — the irony comes in a corrosive interlude by guest rapper G Love E. The Temptations painted a regretful portrait of a father who deserts his family; G Love E just slams the guy. ”I don’t dwell in self-pity/Dreaming of the life you didn’t give me,” he cries. The idea might be to give the song some gritty, up-to-date reality, but all G Love E really does is emphasize the obvious. Don Was has become a major force in the music business, as producer of important albums by Bonnie Raitt and the B-52’s. But in this album he and his partner, David, seem to have outsmarted themselves. C+