Album of the Week: ‘Tom Tom Club’
This week, I chose to review one of my favorite albums of all time: Tom Tom Club by Tom Tom Club. This self-titled album marked the 1981 debut of the Tom Tom Club as their own band, since they were initially founded as a side project of the Talking Heads. Talking Heads drummer, Chris Frantz, and his wife Tina Weymouth, founded the group in 1980 while on hiatus from the Talking Heads. Weymouth, the lead singer of the Tom Tom Club, also served as the bassist, while Frantz reprised his role as drummer. Weymouth’s sisters also provided backing vocals.
Like the Talking Heads, the Tom Tom Club is regarded as a new wave band, though many of the songs on their debut album do tow the line between new wave and post-disco. Though the original LP version of the album only consists of eight tracks, the runtime is approximately 40 minutes. The average song length on the album is between five and five and a half minutes, which is indicative of the dance culture of the early 1980s. The singles from Tom Tom Club (‘Wordy Rappinghood’ and ‘Genius of Love’) were also popular roller skating songs, according to my parents, who both came of age at the time of the album’s release.
A quality across all of the album’s tracks that makes this album one of my favorites is the use of syncopation. An overwhelming number of the tracks are noticeably off-beat, yet still manage to come together to create gorgeous pieces of decade-defining music. Each song manages to make the most of cacophony, shaping the out of place sounds, instruments, and synthesizers into a coherent and uniform album. Another cool thing to note is that many melodies and sound effects carry over between tracks, or show up somewhere on the A-side of the record, as well as on the B-side.
Even the album cover of Tom Tom Club is an amalgamation of nonsensical artistic choices that somehow come together beautifully. The album art depicts a roughly sketched cartoon band of characters, as well as a ton of other inanimate objects and people unrelated to the band that is depicted as performing. The music video for ‘Genius of Love’ brings a number of the characters depicted on the album cover to life in a psychedelic and captivating visual manifestation of the song’s lyrics. The cohesion between the aesthetic of the album cover and the vibe of Tom Tom Club works wonders in terms of creating a clear image of the Tom Tom Club as a musical act.
Tom Tom Club, while a dance album, does offer a variety of tempos throughout its 40-minute run. One of my favorite tracks, ‘Lorelei,’ is a slow, hypnotic tune that does still provide a beat to dance to. Nothing on the album is too slow, and although most of the songs exceed the typical three to four minute runtime of modern music, none of them drag on. Though the album is dated, it still makes for excellent dance music, and would bring people to their feet at any party.
Despite my love for all of the tracks on Tom Tom Club as both individual pieces and stitches in the patchwork of the album as a whole, there is no doubt what my favorite track is. ‘Genius of Love’ is one of my favorite songs of all time, so it naturally takes the cake for my favorite track on Tom Tom Club. The Tom Tom Club’s best known song, ‘Genius of Love’ puts a spin on the ever-cheesy 1980s synth sound, by pairing the synthesizer with an expertly crafted bass riff. The melody of the synthesizer and the bassline remain hand-in-hand throughout the entire song, which runs for five minutes and 34 seconds. The minute the initial notes play, I am on my feet, ready to dance!
The lyrics of ‘Genius of Love’ tell the story of an imprisoned woman who longs to be reunited with her boyfriend and go out dancing and partying with him once again. Aside from the verses that tell the central story, not many of the other lyrics make sense. There is that unwarranted Japanese monologue about halfway through the song, and of course, the “Oops, your mama said” chunk. The song also pays homage to the following iconic Black musicians: Kurtis Blow, George Clinton, James Brown, Bob Marley, Bootsy Collins, Smokey Robinson, Sly and Robbie, and Hamilton Bohannon. It is the very lack of sense behind most of the lyrics that makes ‘Genius of Love’ such a perfect dance tune! The song is also considered to be one of the most sampled pieces of music in hip-hop, having been sampled. It is the sample of ‘Genius of Love’ in Mariah Carey’s ‘Fantasy,’ though, that has become the most famous sample of the song.
Tom Tom Club, without a doubt, earns a coveted five star rating. As I’ve stated, it is one of my favorite albums, so I admit to being a bit biased. However, I do believe that this album is the epitome of post-disco music, which speaks volumes. When an album can be used to define an entire genre of music, something was done correctly in the production process. Even without having been alive in the 1980s, this album always makes my heart bubble with nostalgia; that is the very charm of this album. I wonder if dance music will ever reach the caliber of Tom Tom Club again someday; I can only hope so!