Tuesday, December 22, 2015

CD Odyssey Disc 814: Timbuk 3

For the second time in four albums I’ve rolled an album released in 1988. Readers new to the blog will wonder how this is possible, so for their benefit, let me explain. It’s random.

Disc 814 is….Eden Alley
Artist: Timbuk 3

Year of Release: 1988

What’s up with the Cover? Big letters, planted on top of a backdrop of Botticelli’s “The Birth of Venus” (I think). Also a couple of cut out pictures – one a set of tattooed legs and the other a tiny portrait of the band (husband and wife team Pat and Barbara K. MacDonald). These unnecessary touches take this album cover from mediocre city all the way down to crap town.

How I Came To Know It: My friend and former room-mate Greg used to own this on cassette. We didn’t have a lot of albums between us back then, and even fewer we both liked. Consequently, this one got a lot of airplay. Recently I saw the CD version in a $5 bargain bin so I bought it.

How It Stacks Up:  From 1986 to 1995 Timbuk 3 released six albums, but I only have two of them. Still, I believe that is two more than the vast majority of the human population. Of the two, “Eden Alley” is the better record.

Ratings: 3 stars

Timbuck 3 is not for everyone. My wife recently coined them as “Tim-Yuck 3.” Sometimes I wonder if it is even for me, but while their sophomore album, “Eden Alley” is a hot mess, it has a lot of rugged charm to it; enough that I keep coming back to it and giving it another listen. At least when the wife’s not home.

For those who don’t know, Timbuk 3 is the one-hit wonder that wrote and recorded “Future’s So Bright (I Gotta Wear Shades).” Before you get all nostalgic and start reminiscing about how you love that song, it is not on “Eden Alley.” So what is the hit on “Eden Alley,” you ask? If you are asking that question then you are obviously not familiar with the concept of a one-hit wonder.

Don’t let that stop you, (he said, years after everybody already did). Despite that absence, this album has a lot going for it.

For one thing, it isn’t really like anything else you’ll hear. It has a mix of tribal percussion rhythms, funk bass and harmonica, all loosely connected around pop songs. This should not work, and frankly on more than a few songs it doesn’t. “Sample the Dog” (yes, it samples a dog) bounces between so many musical concepts your ear never gets a grip on what the song is trying to accomplish.

Rev. Jack and His Roamin’ Cadillac Church” is a basic R&B song that falls apart under the over-produced sonic experiment that is Timbuk 3. The fact that they chose to release “Rev. Jack…” as the radio single says a lot about the fate of this album. The song peaked at #38, which for a band that two years earlier almost won a Grammy for “Best New Artist” I will politely characterize as “not good.”

There are a lot of songs that I enjoyed, particularly the soft pop “Easy” which features Barbara K. MacDonald’s pure almost folk-singer voice. “Easy” is gentle and soothing, as it speaks to how easy it is to do the wrong thing in life. It is like a lullaby to corruption.

The themes begun in “Easy” are developed throughout the album, and make up some of its better content. “Welcome to the Human Race” is a song about the collapse of the capitalist dream. The refrain, “welcome to the human race,’ is both a scornful wake-up call and a genuine embrace in equal measure.

Near the end of the album, “Little People Make Big Mistakes” is the final step on the road to redemption, where the scorn is replaced with an apology and the chance at forgiveness. “Little People…” is one of those songs everyone who’s stressed out about an error in judgment need to hear. The message: there’s always a road back.

“Eden Alley” isn’t all cathartic forgiveness and personal growth, though. It also features some good old fashioned pop music fun. “Dance Fever” is an ode to the dance/variety show that had been cancelled the year before. It is a fun song about a couple’s dream of winning a dance competition and the fleeting nature of fame. The song ends:

“Out on the floor they really came alive
They skipped away with a 95
They’d always dreamed of a place in the sun
Now they’re in Vegas, having fun
Pissing away all the money they won
On Dance Fever.”

Too Much Sex (Not Enough Affection)” isn’t the best song on the album, but I’ve always liked the title. That said, I think there’s room for plenty of sex AND affection. I’m generous like that.

The biggest drawback to this album is the absolutely horrible production decisions. The harmonies sound lifeless (husband Pat is not the singer his wife is). The drums are all drum machine, and even the electric guitars are synthesized. This may be the effect that Timbuk 3 is going for, but it almost single-handedly wrecks this record. They obviously wanted a New Wave style artificiality to their sound, but the songs end up drowned in it.

When reading up on this album, I found out that Barbara K. MacDonald (now Barbara Kooyman or Barbara K) has done a solo record of acoustic covers of Timbuk 3 songs. It is so obscure that I couldn’t even find samples on Youtube, which is too bad, because “Eden Alley” would improve significantly with some more traditional instrumentation.

Best tracks:  Easy, Dance Fever, Welcome to the Human Race

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