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Timmy Thomas’ Basement Soul Masterpiece

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Probably because Timmy Thomas’ “Why Can’t We Live Together?” is spare like a demo–just a clunky drum machine, voice, and organ–or maybe it’s because Thomas’ plea for peace is a hushed yelp in a world of echo, like he knows the song won’t change real-life (though it did in some small way, becoming the anthem for South Africa’s first free elections in 1994), but Why Can’t We Live Together? (1972, Glades) is less your typical socially-conscious soul classic and more like a guy working all that out in his basement. Comparisons to Nebraska might be a good way to sell it to somebody, because of the stripped-down appeal, but also because it’s just a kind of terribly soul-crushing listen.

Intimate without shouting-out how intimate it is–something even Nebraska does–and really not trying to be anything but some kind of super-spare expression of worry and concern, Why Can’t We Live Together?, song and album, are really like nothing else released at the time or since–save for say, the 90s lo-fi movement, or a couple of random jams from Faust. Had the album not yielded a hit, had LPs stacked-up, slowly disseminating around the country, the album might be getting some kind of fancy-pants re-release now. A piece of lost weirdo soul.

As it stands, Thomas was afforded a pretty successful career well into the 1990s, moving into some progressive disco on The Magician and from there, into some fairly successful Quiet Storm things, but this album, like so many soul albums, is just sort of relegated to “whatever” status these days. While we stand behind new jack soul-jackers like Mayer Hawthorne or some Brazilian Jazz Funk rarities, the dudes that like, palpably affected soul history get pushed to the side.

“Why Can’t We Live Together” is slightly catchier, a tad more upbeat than the rest of the album, but it’s as much a song that sets the tone, that trains the conventional radio-listening consumer in 1972 to accept an album of sorta improvised, voice, drum machine, and organ work-outs, as it is the obvious stand-out single. You know the song already and so, real quick just revisit it and check out the way the drum machine seems to slowly deconstruct, the tinny knocks coming closer and closer together later in the song, like when you bounce a ping-pong ball on the table and bring the paddle ever-closer to the table’s surface, creating this weird arhythmic rattling. What’s so cool about this, is it’s the same weirdness that developed when much more consciously arty musicians started screwing around with their electronic equipment. Finding a piece of awkward beauty in imperfection…on a machine designed to sound “perfect”.

There’s a moment on “Take Care of Home”, an appropriately confused song about the tension between America’s global responsibilities and the in-house ones it just keeps shirking, where Thomas mumbles out “helps me out right here!” and a few moments later, between a coda-like cry of “take care of home”, ad-libs “you know what I’m talking about?”. Yeah, it’s a recording and soul/funk often does this call-and-response thing, but there’s something meta, something extra-solitary about it here. The record drips “guy alone in a room”, so the calls seem consciously directed towards nobody.

That it’s followed by an instrumental cover of “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face”, which sounds more like something from the Eraserhead soundtrack than a soul album only drives home the solitary nature of Why Can’t We Live Together?. In terms of just stretching the soul blueprint to its limit, the one-two punch of “First Time”s circus-funk and the “Walk On By” on a budget “The Coldest Days of My Life” (itself a Chi-Lites song), are a fascinating inversion of the slow-growing epic production sweeping Philly and Detroit and Memphis when Thomas holed-up to make Why Can’t We Live Together?.

Hard to imagine, but the album actually grows darker as it goes along, save for the personal anthem/album-ender “Funky Me”, Side B seems focused on institutionalized and inescapable fate for the oppressed. Beginning with “In The Beginning”, which just explains the formation of the earth, with a focus on the visceral and horrifying (darkness, lightning) and in lieu of a hook–the song’s either all hook or has no hook, you decide–has Thomas doing call and response with an abrasive lightning sound effect. A laconic, creation-myth organ vamp.

From there, disdain and even contempt bubble over. “Cold Cold People” kicks-off with Thomas lamenting “those S.O.Bs” and then sings in the voice of any and every victim of oppression since well, the aforementioned “beginning”. You’d think it’d let-up on “Opportunity” but the song’s essentially that 1970s soul version of “Umma Do Me” or some insular vision of “by any means necessary”, in which Thomas half-apologizes for being single-minded (“This world is big enough for both of us/But I can’t let you have my share”) but knows that’s the hand he’s been dealt, lamenting “Now I’ve got to wheel and deal for perfection”.

Calling Why Can’t We Live Together? consistent would be an understatement. It’s singularly focused. Just a bunch of songs whirling around in the same sonic territory. Every song kicks-off the same: The snap and pop of the drum machine, some plinks and plonks of an organ, Thomas’ voice slowly creeping in touching on the personal and political and then, a fade-out or abrupt end. It doesn’t let-up and shifts ever-slightly, but that’s about it, just a bunch of bummed-out dirges for Thomas to sadly wail over. It’s just one of the loneliest records out there.

further reading/viewing:
-Why Can’t We Live Together? (Glades, 1972) from Snap, Crackle, & Pop
-Timmy Thomas entry in All Music Guide to Soul
-”Stone to the Bone” by Timmy Thomas off 1977’s The Magician

Written by Brandon

October 9th, 2009 at 5:10 am

Posted in Timmy Thomas, soul

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