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Saturday, January 19, 2019

Tom Tom Club: Close To The Bone


1) Pleasure Of Love; 2) On The Line Again; 3) This Is A Foxy World; 4) Bamboo Town; 5) The Man With The 4-Way Hips; 6) Measure Up; 7) Never Took A Penny; 8) Atsa­baby!.

General verdict: No less charismatic than the first Tom Tom Club album, but the lack of originality and too much humble bubblegummy politeness are sort of killing its chances.

I think that deep down in their hearts, no matter how much sincere sympathy was generated, everybody believed that the first Tom Tom Club album would remain a one-time joke — and especially now that Talking Heads were officially back as a band and burning down the house. This might explain why the second album, which really tries as hard as possible to stick to the same formula, got only a small share of respect awarded to the first one — and why, after all these years, ʽGenius Of Loveʼ remains the only thing anybody remembers about Tom Tom Club.

In all honesty, Close To The Bone is just a little bit worse than its predecessor: a bit shorter, a bit less inspired, somewhat less original, and with Alex Weir replacing Adrian Belew on guitar — not the greatest exchange in the world (and it did not work out that well for the Heads, either). But I would not describe it in terms of «sophomore slump», either: the mix of dance grooves, catchy hooks, and lyrical sarcasm remains satisfactory on the whole. Maybe the band moves even closer to B-52ʼs territory — which it would not be able to conquer because of too much shyness and caution (Tina and Chris could never match the stage and studio wildness of the B-52ʼs) — but the more grotesque elements they introduce into their music, the more it rises above the average dance-pop of the era.

They certainly are not being subtle about trying to follow the success of ʽGenius Of Loveʼ up with ʽPleasure Of Loveʼ. Unlike ʽGeniusʼ, ʽPleasureʼ has no instantly captivating melodic riff; it is all about the funky groove and the surprisingly retro atmosphere of the vocals floating above the groove — Tina and the rest of the Weymouth sisters deliver the lines if not with the power, then certainly with the exhilarating spirit of old school girl bands like The Shirelles. I actually like the song more than ʽGenius Of Loveʼ precisely because it is less flashy and more subtly funny, but it is also clear why it never gained the same attention. The other single was ʽThe Man With The 4-Way Hipsʼ, a more sharply defined synth-pop creation with a one-line chorus that runs the risk of quickly becoming annoying, but is still saved by one of Tinaʼs trademark bad(b)ass riffs, giving this somewhat generic tale of a master dancer the necessary sexiness.

Somewhat alarmingly, this is also an album on which Tina and Chris delve into social issues: ʽThis Is A Foxy Worldʼ is just another simple dance-pop anthem if you do not listen closely, but if you do, it is also a surprisingly modern-sounding feminist declaration ("hey boy whatʼs it gonna be / freedom for the sexes full equality / hey boy what do you say / equal work gets equal pay"). But the lyrics seem sillier on paper than they actually sound within the song — precisely because it is all so hush-hush, with Tinaʼs quiet husky falsetto driving it home surreptitiously rather than aggressively, so that the whole thing can be taken seriously or ironically depending on the situation. And when the very next song is ʽBamboo Townʼ, a moody dance ballad about a boy-loves-girl, girl-loves-boy, "bum diddly bum" situation, we are comprehensively back in vapor-head territory anyway, to such an extent where, if you did not properly understand the context, you might have really mistaken the artists for vapor-headed people.

If anything, the second album gives an even stronger impression that they are trying to invent IBM (Intelligent Bubblegum Music) that would be the equivalent of, say, the Ramones in the dance-pop sphere: a post-New Wave style of danceable music that is nevertheless dependent on playing dexterity, yet also deconstructs the romantic lyricism and emotional atmosphere of the music to a bare minimum — like some much needed antidote to Byrneʼs insufferably paranoid and cryptic style. This is, however, precisely the problem: all of this Tom Tom Club stuff works much better if you take it in the context of contemporary Talking Heads albums than if you took it completely on its own. (Although, given my original break-the-spell reaction to ʽGenius Of Loveʼ in the context of Stop Making Sense, I am almost surprised at myself for writing this). At the very least, it helps to know that the creator of this superficially bubblegummy schlock is the same person that is responsible for the bass line of ʽPsycho Killerʼ.

Even so, the public was not impressed: neither the album nor its accompanying singles managed to sell well, and even the success of ʽBurning Down The Houseʼ never really brushed off on the fate of Close To The Bone — which probably explains why there would be no follow-up until late 1988, by which time Naked was out and the future existence of Talking Heads as the same old four-piece unit was put in serious doubt. But this lack of acceptance, I believe, has more to do with the humbleness and general lack of flash than with the actual songwriting: after all, the record was released in the same month as Madonnaʼs debut — feel the difference between that one and Tom Tom Clubʼs old-fashioned way of courting. 

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