By Mike Faloon
Toys That Kill
I’m confused by a great number of things. Most of them are of little consequence. But the size of a conundrum has little impact on how often said head scratcher pops into my mind’s playlist — magnitude and frequency are different variables, right?
For years I couldn’t understand how people could dig tunes sung in a language they didn’t understand. I’d read about how an American or English band had topped the charts in Spain or Japan or Egypt and wonder how that happened — what did those audiences get from those songs? (Dark Side of the Moon went Top 10 in Algeria? How?) My relationship with music was literal, especially when I was younger. If I couldn’t understand the words, how could I understand the song? I was the kid who always skipped “Komm, Gib Mir Deine Hand” on the Beatles Something New (even though I knew the English version).
Later I loved “La Bamba.” Still do. I thought my high school Spanish had given me enough to understand what Los Lobos were singing. In truth I’ve never gotten past translating “Yo no soy marinero.” (Hey man, I’m no marinero either!) What should have opened my eyes slid into the “exception to prove the rule” bin.
Over time, though, I’ve realized just how few songs I’m able to sing along with from start to finish. Phrases stick, certainly, but there’s an embarrassing amount of mumbling. I’ve listened to Superchunk for 20 years and only in 2010 did I finally start to figure out whole verses. Lately my kids have been into “Pink Shoe Laces,” the 50s tune by Dodie Stevens. It’s taken a concerted effort to remember the lyrics; my kids were chiming along long before I was. Sounds make a big impression on me. Likewise for rhythms and structures, harmonies and melodies. I seldom dwell on a song’s meaning.
All of this gained a new level of clarity when I tried to figure out the appeal of Toys That Kill’s latest album Fambly 42.
First of all, Fambly 42 is fantastic.
Second, Fambly 42 contains no references to Level 42.
Third, when I have a crummy day at work—like today, a true doozy of a fist shaker (Why do people hate teachers so much? Why do they think we’ll perform better buried beneath gobs of paperwork?)—Fambly 42 is a “go to” record. Everyone who drives on Route 684 northbound in the afternoon should thanks Toys That Kill for making the roads a bit safer.
Fourth, I sing along with all of the songs on Fambly 42. I understand a lot of the words, but I understand what they meaning, at least their literal meanings.
I’ve been mobbed by the 3’s (“Mobbed by the 3s”)
Huh? What’s that mean? Too many trilogies?(Someone’s who’s just endured The Godfather 3?) Too many 3-pointers? (Many the Heat or the Lakers after getting crushed by the Knicks’ outside game?) Maybe it’s religious? (The holy trinity?)
Stuck on the nervous rocks (“The Nervous Rocks”)
What? A ship wreck? A crack reference? Most likely it’s none of these things. In fact, I’ll guarantee I’m way off base. I could pick up the lyric sheet and attempt to crack the codes. Instead I’ll keep fumbling in the dark, take my phonetic understanding and try to translate ToysThatKill-ese into something I can better understand. In this sense it's kind of like wading through the Minutemen's spiels (or fIREHOSE or Mike Watt's latest solo record for that matter--maybe it's a San Pedro thing?!).
I think Fambly 42 is Toys That Kill’s most cohesive record, maybe their best. I keep going back to it. A little bit of confusion, a bit of ambiguity, some uncertainty, makes the album more compelling. Every time I go back there’s something to puzzle out while air drumming and air guitaring and mumbling along.