Pat and Barbara K. MacDonald are wry, rueful observers of society’s ills; their dry, dusty voices have a down-home charm that makes up for occasional excesses in their lyrics. Using a rhythm box for backing, they burst out of the Austin, Texas, scene with the peppy, corrosively sarcastic hit “The Future’s So Bright, I Gotta Wear Shades,” only to see, like Randy Newman and Elvis Costello before them, how irony is typically ignored or misunderstood by mainstream audiences. Anyone digging into their excellent debut album, however, could hardly misconstrue the MacDonalds’ intent. Greetings From Timbuk 3, surely one of the darkest albums ever to have yielded a hit single, collects some rueful snapshots of Americana (“Life Is Hard,” “Just Another Movie”) alongside enjoyable lighter fare (“Facts About Cats,” “Hairstyles and Attitudes”) with impressive results.
Eden Alley trades much of that album’s country twang for a more varied recording approach (e.g., “Sample the Dog” does just that). Stylistic eclecticism comes in handy on Pat’s mini-morality-plays (the title track, “Dance Fever,” “Rev. Jack & His Roamin’ Cadillac Church”). Barbara, meanwhile, shines on her two featured cuts, “Welcome to the Human Race” and “Easy.”
Oozing sardonic desperation, Edge of Allegiance (co-produced by drummer Denardo Coleman, Ornette’s son) is yet another small triumph of sane, thoughtful songcraft — occasionally labored (“Standard White Jesus”) but more often right on the money. The chipper “National Holiday” provides a facetiously optimistic opening to an album that paints a bemused but bleak view of an America ruled by economic inequity (“Dirty Dirty Rice”), environmental horror (“Acid Rain”) and an atrophied democratic process (“Count to Ten”).
Big Shot in the Dark presents Timbuk 3 as a bona fide quartet (with drummer Wally Ingram and bassist/etc. Courtney Audain), offering looser, more soulful grooves in sharp contrast to the increasingly embittered content. Mocking power-seekers in the title track, social horror in “Dis***land (Was Made for You & Me),” aimless youth in “God Made an Angel” and other sources of stress, the MacDonalds almost seem overwhelmed by their moral outrage.
Field Guide: Some of the Best of Timbuk 3 is a straightforward thirteen-track compression of the first four albums, with a 1989 B-side (“Assholes on Parade”) added for collectability. Recorded in 1991 in Paris, Espace Ornano (the name of the venue) is a nifty live set highlighted by snappy renditions of “Throw Down Gun” (a warning about police frameups), “Tarzan Was a Bluesman” and “Dirty Dirty Rice.” “The Future’s So Bright” is conspicuous by its absence.
The song does resurface in a newly deconstructed but still scathing version on the six-track Looks Like Dark to Me. In addition to an agreeably footloose reading of “Born to Be Wild,” the EP provides a stunning companion piece to “The Future’s So Bright” in the form of the brooding title track, wherein Pat MacDonald accurately describes himself as a “hopeful cynic.”
A Hundred Lovers finds the MacDonalds in fine form, rockin’ in a steadier fashion as they allow the superior rhythm section of Audain and Ingram more room to maneuver. Irritation at the state of the world remains the order of the day, but messages come wrapped in vibrant, funky sounds. Highlights include the driving “Not Yet Gone” (with faux ZZ Top guitar), “Legalize Our Love” (a rousing assault on homophobia) and the sly, sexy “Just Wanna Funk With Your Mind,” featuring Barbara K’s unsettling offer to “attempt a little amateur brain surgery.” Yipes!