College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #410 to #408

410. Romeo Void, Benefactor (1982)

It was up to Romeo Void to prove the soundness of a recent business decision by the executives at Columbia Records. That responsibility was only appropriate because the San Francisco band were primary drivers of the decision being made in the first place. It was Romeo Void’s success with the song “Never Say Never,” featured on the EP of the same name, that prompted the Columbia personnel to make the jaunt to the Bay Area and strike a deal to distribute the wares of the indie label 415, figuring it would be a handy rabbit hutch of new-wave hits. Benefactor, the sophomore full-length from Romeo Void, was the first release under the business pact.

Understandably, the album kicks off with the clacking, churning “Never Say Never,” albeit with it’s runtime cut in half and a well-placed cymbal crash to disguise the salty language that ran afoul of FCC guidelines. There were plenty of radio stations already certain to be squeamish about the song’s prominent refrain “I might like you better if we slept together.” There’s an edge to the song that’s icy and a little dark, not quite in alignment with the brighter sheen found the material then breaking through on the pop charts. In general, Romeo Void made music that seemed too complex to truly be positioned for crossover consumption. “Undercover Kept” initally seems like perfect, of-its-era dance-inflected rock-pop, but little burbles of Prince-like funk experimentation show up at the fringes as it goes on, and “Shake the Hands of Time” buzzes with implied confrontation.

Lead singer Debora Iyall was heavily influenced by Patti Smith, which shows up most clearly on the punk-punched gloom drama of “S.O.S.” More often — and more impressively — that influences is adapted just enough to suggest Romeo Void was an integral conduit between Smith and other descendants that arrived not long after. The album’s cover of Sam and Dave’s “Wrap It Up” points the way to Fetchin Bones, and “Chinatown” has the atmospheric authority that would soon distinguish the best of Concrete Blonde.

There was a toll to the preeminence of Romeo Void in Columbia’s aspirations for the 415 acts. Iyall later acknowledged that she felt a lot of pressure to pen suggestive lyrics that mirrored the come on of “Never Say Never,” and the band was pushed to produce tracks that felt to the bosses like hit singles. Perhaps owing to the anxiety spurred by these expectations, Romeo Void didn’t last much longer. There was only one more album before the band broke up.

409. The Tom Tom Club, Close to the Bone (1983)

Surely Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz weren’t expecting to generate hits when they set up a side project to scratch some creative itches as David Byrne was increasing his personal footprint at the day job with Talking Heads. And yet hit were exactly what sprung from the self-titled debut by the Tom Tom Club. “Genius of Love” was a surprise visitor to the Billboard Top 40, and both it and “Wordy Rappinghood” topped the dance chart. A lark became a new professional obligation. The betrothed rhythm section and their sprawling troupe of collaborators needed to create a follow-up. At roughly the same time Weymouth and Frantz were toiling away on the Speaking in Tongues, the fifth Talking Heads album, they also worked on Close to the Bone, the sophomore full-length from the Tom Tom Club. The two records were released within weeks of each other in the summer of 1983.

Weymouth later conceded that Close to the Bone wasn’t particularly successful, mostly because, as she told Musician, “it was self-consciously trying to repeat itself.” The rubbery and light album opener “Pleasure of Love” is almost a sonic clone of the earlier hit single with a similar name. “This is a Foxy World” is playful, wispy, as is “Bamboo Town,” which carries a mild reggae influence, but the tracks also aren’t especially memorable. “Never Took a Penny” is sweet and easygoing as it offers a simple declaration of personal perseverance: “I’m making merry music/ I don’t want to be sad/ I’ve had a lot of trouble/ But I’m not gonna stay mad.” “The Man with the 4-Way Hips” is frustratingly emblematic of record: a better title than a song, plodding along in bland redundancy.

Compounding the sense that Close to the Bone was a step backwards for the Tom Tom Club, the album was significantly outpaced by the concurrent Talking Heads release. Speaking in Tongues was the band’s most successful album to that point, giving them their first platinum certification and placing a single in the Billboard Top 10 for the first — and only — time. There was no urgency for more Tom Tom Club music, and four years passed before the band’s next album. By then, the working compact of Talking Heads had crumbled, and Tom Tom Club was no longer a side hustle. Instead, it was suddenly the main gig for Weymouth and Frantz.

408. Shoes, Tongue Twister (1981)

For their second album on Elektra Records, Shoes made every attempt to position themselves for a big commercial splash. Most notably, the Illinois natives worked with producer Richard Dashut, who, as a longtime collaborator of Linday Buckingham and Stevie Nicks, shared the credit for making Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours into one of the biggest albums of all time. The resulting album, Tongue Twister, has precisely the professional polish that would be expecting, highlighting Shoes’ expert songcraft. Like Fountains of Wayne’s Utopia Parkway, released a generation later, it’s the sort of album that deserved to spawn a string of hits but was ultimately too pure and pristine to do so.

If there’s a flaw to Tongue Twister, it’s the way formula sets in. “Your Imagination” opens the album with practiced raspy vocals, slapping guitars, and rhythmic certainty, and it’s mostly small shifts in tone and tempo after that. “She Satisfies” and “When It Hits” put a little more bluster to the guitars, and “Yes or No” and “Found a Girl” evoke the gentler British pop of the late sixties. “Karen” ticks up the melancholy (“Karen, I have always loved you/ Even when your arms were filled with other men”). All the variations are a matter or nuance rather than distinction and surprise.

Whatever its merits, Tongue Twister didn’t follow Dashut’s Fleetwood Mac records to the top of the chart. Shoes made one more album under their deal with Elektra before all involved decided the band was better off doing their own thing. After a dalliance with upstart label Instant Records, Shoes went back to self-releasing material on their own Black Vinyl Records.

To learn more about this gigantic endeavor, head over to the introduction. Other entries can be found at the CMJ Top 1000 tag. Most of the images in these posts come straight from the invaluable Discogs

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