In trying to find an album for this afternoon, I was feeling like something quirky and dance-y and fun. Tom Tom Club seemed to fit the bill. I had been thinking of them based on a reference to them recently, and figured it couldn’t hurt to give the album a listen. I suppose it didn’t really hurt at all, but it did leave me with quite an appreciation for the old whole-greater-than-sum-of-parts chestnut.
Tom Tom Club was, well, a big weird group of musicians making some dance-funk. Sometimes that creates some seriously influential grooves, like “Genius of Love,” which was ripped wholesale by Mariah Carey. Sometimes it fuses awkward 80s rap with awkward white folks rapping, as in “Wordy Rappinghood.” That the album would begin with such a long and dull hunk of music seems to be unconscionable from a group of musicians best known for including members of the Talking Heads, but then again, we also remember the non-David-Byrne members album as The Heads, right? How do you undo the damage you’ve done? Start by apologizing for “Wordy Rappinghood.” It’s no surprise that “Rapture” by Blondie was a contemporary of this album, is it?
“Genius of Love” is in and of itself no less of a weird collaboration of beats and weird electroblip flourishes (which are about the best bits of the song). There’s breathy non-words, a foreign language interlude, and hippy dippy lyricism (“who needs to think when your feet just go?”) that sounds just like the dregs of a bong on a spring day, bounding merrily from airy musings on the singer’s boyfriend to equally airy musings on some favorite musicians (Marley, Smokey, Bootsy, and the odd “JAMES BROWWWN” moment). As manic pixie as the whole thing is, it’s hard to imagine the intro lyrics about getting out of jail and having fun as anything but drug related. What do you consider fun? Fun! Natural fun! Riiight, not at all about smoking up, I’m sure. And yet, “Genius…” IS fun, natural fun, despite it all. The lyrics seem to have been made up on the spot, but it is a hodgepodge of quirk squeezed into one package and attempting to be cohesive and, to quote the vocal line about the song’s titular boyfriend, “so deep”.
To be sure, this sort of disjointed composition falls short for many reasons, but it isn’t the biggest sin here. The thing that really keeps the album from full cohesion, though, is the vocal styling on it: the harmonies are performed as though in the distance (and not just in the obvious joke line in “Wordy…” shouted from who knows where across the studio). The vocal lines tend to feel like chants melodically, and not really go any deeper than the superficial. It’s one of many things that make the content feel childish: the simplistic rhymes on “Wordy Rappington” (I cannot express how much this song is a contender for the worst thing I’ve heard in 41 days) along with the coyote-yipping of its nonsense chorus are an easy thing to point out. “Lorelei” sounds like a toy shop, with it’s tinkly keyboards, space lasers, and all manner of clockwork warbles and wobbles. “Booming and Zooming” starts off by actually speaking the title twice, which is probably the worst idea one can have when your song is called “Booming and Zooming”, and then devolves into vibrato and what sounds like a flight dispatch. The songs feel like dada sound collages created by self-conscious art students instead of genre bending experimentation.
“L’Elephant” is the first moment where all the weirdness really works. The (presumably) French lyrics allow the song to rest on its music, and the guitars creating churning motor grind over the percussive beat. The echoey vocals make more sense somehow in French, and the chant aspects take on an element of being just one more instrument when taken out of the context of a language one can comprehend (the lyrics are about an elephant and a hippopotamus, so I’m sure it doesn’t get much better if you can translate). ”On, On, On, On…” also feels like a cohesive song in a way most of the others don’t. There’s a clear structure and the chorus is catchy. The relentless bass and drum tempo helps underscore that “On and On” theme, as well. It’s smart as a song, even if it has some vaguely Peanuts-vocal qualities and verse lyrics which leave a lot to be desired. It’s a shame, because throughout the album the music itself is interesting and even compelling, but those lyrics and deliveries hurt. There’s a lot in here, for sure, but it’s a fair argument whether or not it’s worth doing the exploration needed to dig it out.