Of the many vocalist/instrumentalist duos to emerge in and around the new wave, this Chicago team was unique, a fascinating (literal) marriage of Don Hedeker’s music and Lydia Tomkiw’s poetry. Over the course of its career, Algebra Suicide flirted with pop forms and occasionally shared stylistic ground with both Laurie Anderson and the Velvet Underground but never wavered from its own individual path.
The eponymous debut, a four-song 7-inch, offers a sketchy but atmospheric mix of guitar and rhythm box behind Tomkiw’s coolly intoned short texts, which include the haunting and memorable “True Romance at the World’s Fair,” among the group’s most enduring pieces. An Explanation for That Flock of Crows adds bass, better sound and new vocal inflections (Tomkiw nearly sings “Tonight”) to the recitation of four more numbers made accessible — even catchy — by tangible, occasionally narrative ideas and strong internal tempos. Algebra Suicide isn’t rock’n’roll, but even those with an aversion to poetry should try the pair’s concise records.
Originally issued on cassette with a lyric booklet and later revamped on vinyl, Big Skin introduces piano and simple synthesizers to Hedeker’s increasingly complex and dynamic music. The duo occasionally stumbles in its efforts to synchronize the verbal/instrumental rhythms, but both the song-form music and the lyrical content (like a fascinating, wry discussion of death entitled “Little Dead Body Poem,” also released on a contemporaneous single with two other Big Skin selections) are engrossing.
The Secret Like Crazy is a generous compilation: three tracks from each EP, half of Big Skin, four oldies from various sources and three new cuts. The German CD-only Real Numbers is a convivial 1988 live album, recorded with tapes supplementing Hedeker’s onstage guitar work. Introducing new material and revisiting more than a dozen oldies (all benefiting from new backings/presentations and Tomkiw’s brief setups), it’s an ear-opener for a band that might otherwise seem studio-bound.
Alpha Cue ups the couple’s production ambitions, employing a guest to play bass and piano on two numbers and delivering carefully formed tracks with a credible band sound and enough chordal structure to easily support melodies. (Too bad about the robotic electronic drumming.) Tomkiw’s multi-tracked vocals occasionally resemble tune-shy singing more than recitation. Sample: “What’s inside me is rampant / Wanting ice bath or alcohol sponge / Something to extract it into a test tube / Glowing in the dark like Madame Curie’s lover.”
Her carefully measured flow and his one-man arrangements both continue to gain style and confidence on Swoon, a CD which includes all of Alpha Cue. The poetess’ structural experiments go so far as “Tender Red Net,” a series of palindromes, but the bulk of her provocative prose is personal contemplations riddled with anxious emotions and aroused with sexual imagery. A nouveau rock star turns out to be a bigheaded jerk in “He’s Famous Now,” but even the changing of the seasons (“After Busy Summer”) is described as “big lipped, hyper, with bawdy tone”; the fog in “Charming Twilight Haze” is “sexy…thick enough to choke on.”
Tomkiw doesn’t mince words — or maybe that’s exactly what she does — in “What I Like Doing Best,” the unrestrained paean to kissing that opens Tongue Wrestling, Algebra Suicide’s final album and easily their best. Hedeker outdoes himself with grand backing tracks that sift through early ’80s new wave idioms (think of the sweeping guitar/synth vistas of A Flock of Seagulls, Big Country and Human League) and update them; Tomkiw’s ticklish vocals have enough up-and-down motion to be free-style singing. Though the words and music don’t exactly seem related or connected, the two elements still play off the moods and catch the angled light of each other in “Thank You” (“I have no sleeves, no pockets or secret hiding places / Except my head, my heart and other such tiny empty holes”), “One Night I Fell in Love” (a harrowing hallucination about obsession: “So very much in love, so I got up and drank a fifth of gin / And smoked a million cigarettes and thought about / All the dead people I knew to make me drowsy…”) and “Loose Change,” a powerful meditation on the meaning of money (“I am living to find a new method / Of measuring success”).
Relocating to New York, Tomkiw made her solo debut, using various musicians — including the Chicago trio Reality Scare, the Cleveland quartet Sosumi, Britain’s Martin Bowes (ex-Attrition) and Edward Ka-Spel with some of his Legendary Pink Dots — to provide strong, surging tracks of atmospheric rock and adventurous ambient techno. In a voice that lacks some of the sing-song delight of her previous work, Tomkiw recites pieces like “Iris,” which makes effectively sensual use of vocal distortion, “Thief” (personality transfer set to what could be a film score) and “Saturn Makes a Move,” a relationship-ending slap delivered with steely bitterness over coldly electronic industrial noises. The backing of “Pretty Something” has an otherworldly quality; the edgy, wistful relationship lyrics, however, are clear and real: “Because it was hopeless / I turned my face toward you and let you color my skin.”
Lydia Tomkiw passed away in Phoenix, Arizona in early September 2007. She was 48.