So Important

I feel a childlike sense of delight watching Sparks videos from the 80’s. They’re really 80’s but at the same time really tongue-in-cheek about being really 80’s. When I was listening to this music when I was a kid, I had no idea how satirical it was, I just knew that it didn’t have all the seriousness that made most grown-up music so hard to relate to. And, of course, it actually was the 80’s and nobody had the benefit of hindsight to parse how the nuances of the decade’s pop culture lent themselves to parody. The nature of 80’s pop culture was such that many parts of it have aged better as parody than they did in their straight-faced iterations. That very much applies to music videos, because it’s impossible to take anyone’s earnesty at face value when they look… the way that they do. But with a nod and a wink, everything becomes fun again. At least a few people knew they were being silly, and now they look a lot less stupid than the ones who didn’t.

A Sinful Life

Timbuk 3 was so much a part of the soundtrack of my life growing up that it was a shocking letdown to find that they’re not actually well known or wildly popular. I thought everyone listened to this band! I grew up with their cassette tapes clacking around in the glove compartment, but I guess that was just my extended family and literally no one else. Well, obviously, I absorbed their music and appreciated their worldview. I love music with both weight and humor, and I love the balance the Timbuk 3 strikes with their social commentary – still relevant! – and general mistrust of major institutions like national holidays and organized religion, paired with a sweet romanticism and faith in humanity. The tattered heart may redeem itself in the arms of another tattered heart, and the rest of the world can continue its journey down to hell.

Shock the World

If Tom Tom Club has done anything to shock the world, it’s proving that there’s still life and music after getting burned by David Byrne. And I wouldn’t call it shocking but rather pleasantly surprising that they’ve had such a consistent run over the years. Good party music that sounds fresh and fun is always welcome, even or even especially if, it flies below the radar. I have to call Boom Boom Chi Boom Boom one of my favorite cult records. I mean, it’s a favorite record period, but definitely top among those that I wish more people knew about. (Also I’ve been waiting for an excuse to post this topless picture of Tina Weymouth, because deep down inside I’m a mouth-breathing 13-year-old boy, I guess.) 

Sample the Dog

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I never understood what this song was about until it came to me that it was simply about trying to record dog sounds. That’s meta, I guess, but it’s more silly than deep. Timbuk 3 has long been a fave of mine despite their obscurity and one of the reasons why is that their songs are always about something. Something clever or funny, or something socially relevant. Patriotism and homelessness and commodified religion and lowered expectations. Good, relevant, timeless writing that doesn’t lean on the same old lazy tropes. This song may not be the best example of that. But it’s a good tune.

Rev. Jack & His Roamin’ Cadillac Church

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“We’re all backseat drivers, and there’s nobody at the wheel”

Yeah, that a pretty good summation of the religious experience. (And a good example of Pat MacDonald’s observational songwriting.) Religion continues being an opiate for the masses because large numbers of people really need stringent rules for how to live their lives, but it’s just people telling people what to do, and that opens up the door for all kinds of abuse of power. When you’re in the business of telling people how to live, it’s awfully easy to benefit yourself. That happens on every level, of course, but it’s particularly sleazy when it happens with some street preacher in an Elvis suit who insists that Jesus wants you to write out a check. And people do, because people are fucking sad and gullible.

Red Toupee

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This is a fairly dispensable pop song, which is not what Al Stewart fans are shopping for. If it’s not thought-provoking or educational, Al hasn’t done his job. I’ve actually always thought it was a very cute song, though. It’s an ode to the kind of quirky, eccentric muse that’s come to be known, in Hollywood parlance, as a Manic Pixie Dream Girl. She’s the free-spirited love interest who brightens up the hero’s life while remaining a cipher for his repressed sense of fun. You can’t load a movie’s worth of shitty screenwriting tropes into a song, although you can stretch a song into a movie. I’m charmed by this particular muse, as I tend to be charmed by these sort of dream girl characters (or dream boy, who knows, girls don’t wear toupees…) It’s charming and light, and it could well yet someday be on the soundtrack of a cliched romantic comedy. But in the historical scope, this song is significant for only one reason: the backup singer is a pre-fame Tori Amos, coincidentally or not, a well-known eccentric redhead.

Reckless Driver

It’s a PSA! It’s educational, it’s a warning. It might be a satire of the particularly 80’s trend for cheesy PSA’s. It’s Timbuk 3 and it’s all of those things. Timbuk 3 is the cult 80’s band that everybody needs to know about, but nobody does. They might be remembered for having one popular hit song, which satirized the 80’s glaringly misguided sense of optimism. What makes their small output still relevant is their clever and sardonic writing. Some things are forever marked as products of their time, whether it’s bad production decisions or too-pointed cultural references, but big issues don’t change much, and the human condition changes not at all. Driving poorly, for example, is forever.