Thursday, March 22, 2012

CD Review: Tom Tom Club

It's Day 308, for those of you scoring at home. I've hit three decent job prospects in the last three days, and decided that I need to reboot some writing to keep engaged. As is usual with me, this will be the proverbial/Gumpian Box of Chocolates.

Today we're going to pick back up with our CD reviews. Thus far, I've looked at the following, ranked in order of quality:
1) Sandinista, The Clash
2) The Bends, Radiohead
3) Nilsson Schmilsson, Harry Nilsson
4) Son of Schmilsson, Harry Nilsson
5) 311, 311

I've decided to rank them from here on, although I didn't start out doing that. I'm also going to split the reviews into songs that must be on your iPod, and songs that you can forget.

Unfortunately this plays right into an issue I've been lamenting recently: no one listens to a whole album any more. They cherry-pick a few songs and the rest of the album is relegated to Nowheresville. That's sad. Some albums simply cannot be chopped up like that. Pink Floyd's "The Wall" is a fully realized opus... "Comfortably Numb" is a great song but even more epic when considered within the context of the album's story arc.

It's analogous to looking at one-tenth of a particular painting, or reading two chapters of a book. That would be ridiculous, right? So why is it OK when you're listening to a new release by a musical artist?

I strongly recommend listening to full albums again. Do this every so often, please.

On to the discussion...

Tom Tom Club began as a side project when the rhythm section of Talking Heads -- bassist Tina Weymouth and drummer Chris Frantz -- put together a group while the Heads were on hiatus. The married duo incorporated some of the musicians who had toured with the Heads upon the release of 1980's Remain in Light (which happens to be my favorite Heads album).

The emerging "world music" that the Heads helped bring into mainstream music was yet another interesting development of the band, who to this day defy easy categorization. The Heads came along in the middle of the punk era, but they weren't really punk (more accurately, they were minimalist). They were too tuneful to be punk, but too weird to be New Wave. They were funky and literate and odd. Only bands like The Clash, Devo and Elvis Costello were in their league as far as actually having something to say.

Remain in Light took the band on yet another interesting turn by using international artists (mostly African) to chase down this funky sound. After the release and a world tour, the band took a break, but Tom Tom Club was formed by Weymouth and Frantz and kept the feel of Remain in Light but without the heaviness David Byrne had around him (Ex: Listening Wind, The Overload).

The result, released in June 1981, is a perfect summer album of mostly danceable club songs.

The album caught on slowly; if you didn't live in a city you probably wouldn't have ever heard it. However... there was this new thing called MTV. MTV launched in August 1981; since the music video art form wasn't very developed, the rotation was small, and artists could easily get airplay. This launched a thousand careers. Tom Tom's trippy animated video for "Genius of Love" was hard to resist, very watchable and the beats were addictive. Instant success.

I loved it immediately.

The album starts with "Wordy Rappinghood" and as long as you don't try and put too much weight on the lyrics, you're about to have 6:27 of fun. To be fair, the band is upfront about their approach, singing right away "What are words worth?" The background singers sound like Yoko Ono on E. Just go with it.

If you don't like this song, you won't like Tom Tom Club. I was lucky enough to see this band in summer of 1990 at the Fair Park Bandshell in Dallas (on a bill that included Debbie Harry, who flashed the audience; Heads guitarist Jerry Harrison; and the RAMONES!).

"Genius of Love" is the second track, and the song that put these guys on the map.

The rest of the album is a mixed bag. "Tom Tom Theme" is disposable, but the catchy, groovish "L'Elephant" shows off the guitar wailing of one Adrian Belew. Belew's sound is quite distinctive and some folks don't dig it. I love his stuff with Tom Tom Club, don't think as much of it when he was working with King Crimson.

"As Above, So Below" is a mantra, and sounds very Heads-y. So naturally, I like that. It definitely sounds like a Heads outtake.

"Lorelei" is next, and it's dreamy. It's another keeper.

The next song just doesn't have enough going for it to merit addition to your iPod. "On, On, On, On" goes on and on, without much success.

The disc closes with one of the weirdest songs ever recorded, "Booming and Zooming," which has a funk beat and music backed by a chorus and a strange voiceover that sounds like an argument between a wayward pilot and ground control. Major Tom Tom? I've spent 30 years trying to figure it out to no avail. Some folks won't like it, but I do.

The CD has four bonus tracks: a straight, steel-drum-augmented cover of "Under the Boardwalk," and remixes of "Lorelei" "Wordy Rappinghood" and "Genius of Love." Collectors only.

So, really only two dogs on the CD. Playable

The updated rankings, then:

1) Sandinista, The Clash
2) The Bends, Radiohead
3) Nilsson Schmilsson, Harry Nilsson
4) Tom Tom Club, Tom Tom Club
5) Son of Schmilsson, Harry Nilsson
6) 311, 311

Naturally, I'd love your feedback. Do you remember this album? Where were YOU in 1981?

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