Saturday, May 26, 2018

CD Odyssey Disc 1142: Timbuk3

After a lot of hectic weekends I am in the middle of a very quiet one and it is exactly what I needed. I just got back from a relaxed brunch and now I’m going to write a music review. Maybe then I’ll take a nap.

Disc 1142 is… Greetings from Timbuk3
Artist: Timbuk3

Year of Release: 1986

What’s up with the Cover? I hadn’t expected quite so much air in the Air B&B and cleaning up after the donkey every day was less than pleasant, but at least it had cable.

How I Came To Know It: I came at this album in two ways. Back in the early nineties I was looking to buy “Eden Alley” (reviewed back at Disc 814) but it wasn’t available. This album was and although I didn’t know it, I knew the single “The Future’s So Bright I Gotta Wear Shades”. I remember liking that song in high school, so I took a chance on the rest of the album.

How It Stacks Up:  I have since acquired “Eden Alley” and now have two Timbuk 3 albums. “Greetings from Timbuk3” is the weaker of the two.

Ratings: 2 stars

The Future’s So Bright I Gotta Wear Shades” ended up being an ironic hit for New Wave pop band Timbuk3. Over the ten years that followed they’d only crack the top fifty twice and the top twenty? Never again.

“Greetings from…” is Timbuk3’s first album, which for some bands represents the high water mark of their artistic career. In the case of Timbuk3 it feels like a record from a band still trying to find its feet.

There are lots of good ideas here, with some interesting syncopation and clever observations, mostly about fairly mundane things. Haircuts, house pets and watching TV feature prominently. Timbuk3’s intent is clear – employ boring subjects into social commentary about the world. They are trying to twist eighties consumerism (already suffering its inevitable backlash in 1986) and repurpose it to something meaningful.

Unfortunately, the metaphors feel strained. They’re trying to play off emptiness of the imagery, but instead the emptiness overtakes them. It doesn’t help that the album’s production is tinny and artificial. Part of that artificiality is deliberate, but this album needed a little bit more punch in the low end of the mix to make it work. Drum machines are bad enough, without taking away what little boom they have.

Timbuk3 is husband and wife team Pat and Barbara McDonald. Both sing (often in harmony) but neither has strong vocals. The bad production creates a feedback loop that makes this all the more noticeable. The style is deliberate, trying to deliver lyrics staccato to establish a New Wave groove, and at times it works, but not often.

More often I found myself admiring some of the core melodies but getting frustrated that all that focus on percussion and weak singing were detracting from them. “Facts About Cats” has such a pretty little fifties lilt that overcomes both lyrical and production shortcomings but it is the exception, not the rule.

“Shame on You” is like a cross between the early rap of Red Hot Chili Peppers and lounge jazz but it doesn’t deliver the cool factor critical to either of those styles. It feels more like a high school musical written by the students.

Life Is Hard” is one of the album’s bright spots, where the band tells the stories of some down and outs, including Betty:

“Betty’s in a wet t-shirt
Feelin’ foolish and vain
Lookin’ like a house cat
That got caught out in the rain
Starin’ into the mirror
At this less than pretty picture
Feelin’ ten years older now
And fifty bucks richer.”

The song is helped along by a more organic sounding guitar in the front of the mix (often guitar on the record feels like an afterthought) and a bit of well-placed harmonica. I wish there were more of this – both on this song and on the record in general.

As for that hit single, it is clever at first but becomes less clever with each successive listen, and over the years I’ve heard it a lot. “Greetings from Timbuk3” is one of the first CDs I ever bought and over the years this has built up its sentimental value, but on this listen I realized that sentimental value was not enough. It’s time to let this one go.

Best tracks: Life is Hard, Facts About Cats

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