(Artwork care of Karen Ramsay (www.karenramsay.com), profile photo care of brianlackeyphotography.com)

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Recording review - Tom Tom Club, Downtown Rockers (2012)

After more than a decade, Tom Tom Club picks up where they left off

Tom Tom Club is inextricably tied to the Talking Heads. Where the Talking Heads had a skewed, outsider perspective on rock and roll, Tom Tom Club was deep inside, looking for the perfect pop groove. It's easy to imbue David Byrne with all of the oddball quirk and see the Talking Heads as largely his creative endeavor. But Tina Weymouth, Chris Frantz, and Jerry Harrison were equally steeped in the proto new wave artistic scene going on.

In large part, Tom Tom Club got its direction by avoiding the Talking Heads style. As a side project, it gave Weymouth and Frantz an outlet that didn't conflict with the core band. Tom Tom club's eclectic mix of hip hop, disco, and funk were a completely different direction. Blondie's occasional work in this sandbox may have been an inspiration, but Weymouth and Frantz embraced the sound earnestly. With songs like Genius of Love, Wordy Rappinghood, and The Man With The Four Way Hips, Tom Tom Club was innovative and still a little bit odd.

Now, after more than a decade, Tom Tom Club is back with a new EP, Downtown Rockers. Still mining the same dance beat/electro funk space, it's like a case of "let's get the band back together one last time." Except the energy makes it clear that they're really having fun building up the intricate, interlocking rhythms. It's like the band was vacuum packed for the last 15 or 20 years and just came out to play.

Downtown Rockers features six new songs along with instrumental versions and a special remix of the title track. Of all the tracks, Downtown Rockers is the only one overtly looking back. Name dropping a host of new wave icons (including the Talking Heads), the dirty, low-fi mix recalls the Clash, but the track bridges the bands new wave roots and dance beat sound. The stuttering organ line and vocal interjections offer a taste of the B-52s, but the song is anchored by a disco foundation.

Won't Give You Up works the electro funk angle and features Weymouth's diffident vocal style along with a solid funk bassline. You Make Me Rock and Roll has a dark, Talking Heads sound contrasted against a Stevie Wonder keyboard riff.

Kissin' Antonio is one of the stand out tracks. The Latin rhythm sets up a languid groove. Lyrically, there's nothing there. But the track creates a perfect late night feel of a smoke hazed club, an insistent beat, and the lazy, head-nodding sway.

The band come closest to the modern dance aesthetic on their cover of Love Tape by The Pinker Tones from Spain. Where the original has a kind of mod, retro charm, Tom Tom Club goes for the full electro pop treatment. The steady beat and decorative electronic fills place it firmly on the dance floor. I could envision a dub step remix to really modernize the sound.

Downtown Rockers' strength is that it avoids the common pitfalls of a old band finally releasing a new album: it's not a ridiculous reinvention, a tired rehash, or a crass money grab. Instead, it sounds like Frantz and Weymouth still have some viable musical ideas to share.

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