Published on April 8th, 2014 | by Dave Scaddan


Tobacco – Ultima II Massage

Tom Fec, a.k.a Tobacco, is back with his new record, ‘Ultima II Massage,’ continuing to spread his weird, wonderful gospel of stoneriffic electronic synth pop.

The world of music needs weirdos.  If it weren’t for the Screamin’ Jay Hawkinses, the Captain Beefhearts, and the Grace Joneses of our musical pasts, everything would move along so predictably, so safely and prettily, and really, who needs that?  It’s the freaks of the game who make it fun to press play, who remind us that normal is dumb and that difference takes courage.  As Francis Bacon once wrote, “there is no excellent beauty that hath not some strangeness in the proportion.” 

Tom Fec is an excellent beauty, and there is plenty of strangeness in his proportion.  Since the turn of the millennium, he has been making freaky, fuzzed-over pop music with a Pennsylvania quintet called Black Moth Super Rainbow [BMSR], but this outfit has ceased to contain his muse.  ‘Ultima II Massage’ is his third album since 2008 under the solo moniker Tobacco — the same name he uses as a member of BMSR — and his allegiance to the freak flag is still very strong.  Fec was probably the kind of kid who put grape jam on a cheddar cheese pumpernickel sandwich and then dared his friends to eat it, only to take a bite of it himself to find that it tasted great.  His pop sensibility is undeniable, but it’s not what gives his sound clout.  The clout comes from his absolute refusal to let his sounds get comfortable, or even sane.  There’s either a bumpable beat, a dreamy serenade, or a margarine commercial jingle at the core of all of his songs, but these niceties are always twisted into staticky, squeaky, sinister grooves that will probably either draw you in or repel you right away.

Indulge me in a few awkward attempts to explain the odd stickiness of Tobacco’s sound.  His music feels a little like biting into an unpeeled orange, getting the recoil-inducing bitterness of the rind in your mouth first, before sucking into the sweet part and really enjoying it.  It’s like it’s 1985 and your rabbit-eared TV is stuck between two local access channels, one playing The Friendly Giant and the other playing Tron.  You know that feeling when the weather is really dry and you pet an animal’s fur for a long time?  The softness is pleasant, but you can feel the static electricity popping and buzzing in your fingertips, and that’s what Tobacco makes your ear holes feel like.

Tobacco has been a busy little collaborator lately, (his last record featured guest spots from Beck and a bevy of hip hop artists have worked with him or sampled his beats in the last two years) and ‘Ultima II Massage’ seems like Fec getting back to his own individual process.  There’s a definite nod to the rap-friendly side of his past work on certain tracks like ‘Eruption,’ the first single, whose frazzled emcee style is somewhat misrepresentative of the rest of the album.  This track pulses with a phased bass line and an incredibly simple drum machine beat while Fec speak-sings his image-thick lyrics through some kind of vocoder or talk box.  The same vocal effect is used throughout the album — as it has been on all Fec’s past vocals, with band or solo — but the hip hop groove of the lyrical delivery on ‘Eruption’ isn’t the norm on the rest of the record.  Many of these tracks find Fec’s voice cooing BMSR-style through dreamier numbers like ‘Creaming For Beginners’ or ‘Face Breakout’ and several of them have no vocals at all.  Instrumentals like ‘Good Complexion’ and ‘Self Tanner’ put all the focus on the truly unique production technique that Tobacco has always had, where everything sounds like a loop of a distorted lick that was captured one bar before the whole battery of effects got out of control.  Tracks like ‘Beast Sting’ and ‘Dipsmack’ might have a few whispered vocals buried in the mix somewhere, but these are the offerings most likely to show up as samples on everyone’s summer mixtapes; the voices are really just texture for the block-rockin’ percussion that’s the main distinguishing factor between Tobacco and BMSR.

Then there are the times where all these cool elements, wacky distortion, irresistible grooves, fun lyrics and 80s synth hooks come together in one two-minute track like ‘Lipstick Destroyer’.  This is the number that probably sounds most like what Fec released on ‘Maniac Meat’ in 2010, but it’s still got its unique little charm.  When he whispers, “I met a girl and she said she was a strawberry,” through his usual voice disguise filters, it just loosens up the tension that the crashing, crushing beats are creating.  A groove ensues that would not be out of place in a Daft Punk set list, you know, if they used an electric razor for an amp.  This is Tobacco at his best, when his magnetic funky side charges just right with his unpeeled orange side, and both sides are really about the juice.  ‘Lipstick Destroyer’ could only be used as score in a film if it had monsters in it, but those monsters would have to be able to breakdance, and one of them would require a fly hooptie.  It’s telling that this track first came out a while back on a split 45 single with Jennifer Herrema’s Black Bananas; Jennifer has always understood how the right measure of scuzz and insanity can enhance something’s beauty, making it exquisite.

One listen to any Tobacco track will tell you whether his style is for you, and the stuff on ‘Ultima II Massage’ is no different.  Fec’s made quite a few homemade videos over the years using old VHS and Beta footage, and these easily-available clips are a fun way to check out his catalogue.  There’s even a clip on YouTube of that ‘Lipstick Destroyer’ 45 playing at 33 and a third, because, naturally, it sounds great when given the syrup treatment.  If you listen to two or three tracks without stopping, you’ll probably be hooked on a fun sound that never gets dull.  If you’ve had enough before the first track is over, then the rest of the bounty isn’t worth searching for.  Definitely do not snooze on this record this spring if you’re a fan of any of Fec’s past work. I can easily see this new album getting plenty of summer highway play — it’s sunny without being sleepy and it only gets weird to the point that it’s fun.  Jam and cheese, anyone?

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is a teacher who enjoys writing and talking about movies, music, and books.

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