Beyond the Wonder: Greetings From Timbuk3

Written by Beyond the Wonder, Music

Chris Holmes travels back to 1986, a time when one-hit wonder Timbuk3’s future was so bright they indeed had to wear shades.

I don’t recall the first time I heard Timbuk3’s classic ’80s anthem, “The Future’s So Bright, I Gotta Wear Shades,” but it was probably during a screening of the classic Robert Sean Leonard undead adolescent romp My Best Friend Is a Vampire.  See, the tune was in the movie because Leonard’s character is a vampire and wears sunglasses.  Totally clever, right? Quentin Tarantino wishes his soundtrack picks were as inspired.

Like “Born in the U.S.A.” and “Every Breath You Take” before it, “The Future’s So Bright, I Gotta Wear Shades” is another excellent track from that era that gets played for all the wrong reasons.  It’s become a graduation anthem of sorts, when in fact Pat MacDonald wrote the song as a peppy take on an impending nuclear holocaust.  Despite its sinister subtext the song was the lone charting single from Timbuk3’s 1986 debut album, Greetings From Timbuk3. It peaked at #19 on the American singles chart and #21 in the U.K.

Timbuk3 (the husband-and-wife duo of Pat and Barbara K. MacDonald) was nominated for Best New Artist at the 1987 Grammy Awards but lost to Bruce Hornsby and the Range.  I know you’re all intrigued as to what the rest of Greetings From Timbuk3 sounds like, as we know NARAS would never nominate an act for such a prestigious award based on the strength of one song.  So let’s get to it!

“Life Is Hard” – Immediately we’ve downshifted from the opening cut, the aforementioned “The Future’s So Bright, I Gotta Wear Shades.”  This song features a vaguely Western feel, reverb-heavy harmonica, and synthesized percussion that immediately puts me in mind of Wall of Voodoo, another I.R.S. Records artist.  It’s not a bad tune, just a lot more understated.  It’s got a hook, although not a very strong one, and a set of unmistakably grim lyrics like, “After he stiffed a waitress, and ran out on his tab / Big Mac had a heart attack in the back of a Yellow Cab / By the time the sound of the siren said the ambulance was coming / His heart had stopped beating, but the meter was still running.”  Good times!

“Hairstyles and Attitudes” – Meh.  This is like a college-level creative writing assignment set to some semi-interesting music (“Hairstyles and attitudes, how do they relate? / How well do we use our freedom to choose the illusions we create?”  Really?).  Barbara’s background vocals make me think of Linda McCartney’s on the Wings material, in that she blends in and sticks out at the same time.  For the record, I’m a fan of Linda’s vocals on those albums.

“Facts About Cats” – Speaking of Barbara, now it’s her turn to take lead vocals.  I don’t think I’m a big fan of this.   She’s got this weird twang that keeps popping up.  Maybe it’s an Austin, Texas thing?  Regardless, this is a step up from “Hairstyles” both lyrically and musically.  The arrangement breathes a little better and you’re not clobbered over the head with the subject matter.  Still, I can’t shake this feeling that I’m listening to REM-lite here.

“I Need You” – Ah, a love song.  Ain’t that sweet?  I hope so, because it’s not all that interesting.  It is a little bit sad, though, with the knowledge that Pat and Barbara divorced in 1995.

“Just Another Movie” – Timbuk3 gets political.  This is one of the darkest songs on an album that isn’t all that cheery to begin with.  Dig it: “Now my freedom’s bought and paid for /It lights up my living room / I got nothing more to prove / I’ve got no reason to move.”  Yeah, I don’t see that one making any one of the countless ’80s compilations.  Not a bad tune though.

“Friction” – Another love song?  It sure seems so, but this one is at least more fully formed than “I Need You”, with better melodies and some nice guitar playing.  I can see revisiting this one from time to time.  Let’s call it a deep album cut; that sounds about right.

“Cheap Black and White” – Outside of “The Future’s So Bright… ” this is the only other song that could legitimately be called single material.  It’s bouncy and fun, and got me moving in my seat.  Can’t ask for much more than that.

“Shame on You” – Barbara gets the mic again for this, the longest track on the album.  Like most of the songs on Greetings From Timbuk3, “Shame on You” sports a decent arrangement but is undone by ham-fisted lyrics.  In this one they’re pretending to heap scorn on some poor schlub for not pursuing the Reagan-era prizes of money and power, which is fine.  But with lines like “You could have been the head of a major corporation / Instead you’re working part time at a filling station”, even delivered in an ironic way, all this album makes me think about is how desperately this band needed a third member to handle their lyric-writing.

“I Love You in the Strangest Way” – An interesting coda for the album, and pretty much the complete antithesis of “The Future’s So Bright… “, this quaint love song (another one!) features nothing more than Pat and Barbara’s vocals, an acoustic guitar, and a mandolin.  It’s a bare bones duet that I can envision being on one of the first couple White Stripes records.  It’s also one of the more pleasant songs on the album, as it’s free of the dated production and instrumentation that infuses the rest of Greetings From Timbuk3.

So there you have it, Timbuk3’s debut album and home to one of the most fun singles of the 1980s.  This is certainly not the first time I’ve heard the rest of an album that sounded little like a hit single, so I’m not surprised at what I found on this one.  It’s just too bad that the rest of the material, other than being in a different artistic vein, just isn’t as enjoyable overall.

Timbuk3 released four more studio LPs (and even became a quartet in 1991), an EP, and a live disc before calling it quits in 1995.  The breakup coincided with Pat and Barbara’s divorce, which is a bummer.  Most of their discography is out of print, at least in the United States, which seems unfortunate in this age of digital downloads.  But saddest of all, their official home page is one of the butt-ugliest sites I’ve seen in years.  Seriously, I’m shocked to not see a Geocities logo somewhere on that thing.

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