Thomas Function: In the Valley of Sickness

[29 November 2009]

By Stephen Haag

The Alabama foursome Thomas Function, which, for the record, features no eponymous members, certainly aren’t afraid to wear their heart on their album titles. Celebration, their ‘08 coming out party, was exactly that: a joyous mash-up of snotty Buzzcocks/early Kinks raucousness, anchored by three of the best songs nobody heard last year (“Filthy Flowers”, “Snake in the Grass” and “2012 Blues”). Album number two, In The Valley of Sickness, sure sounds like it’ll be another barrel of monkeys, as the band—Joshua Macero (guitar, vocals), Travis Thompson (bass, vocals), Zach Jeffries (organ, electric piano), Phillip Dougherty (drums)—returns to the organ-fueled garage/power-pop mayhem that made Celebration such a winner. But there’s a distinct vibe, call it a (cough cough) sickness, hanging over the record. The new record finds the band making the label jump from obvious home Alive (the Bomp! imprint) to the blues-but-expanding-their-horizons Fat Possum. It seems like an odd artist/label pairing, but one spin of Sickness and you’ll realize these dudes have the blues.

Valley of Sickness opens with “ADP Blues” and Macero’s annoyed realization, “When you get so sick and you just want to see something done.” Frustration rings out as loud as his chiming guitar. Like fellow Kinks’ acolytes Jay Reatard and the fellers in the Black Lips, T-Funk knows the value of a sharp hook and a keen knack for character studies, but Macero grasps Ray Davies’ cynicism and his hopefulness better than his peers. “Picking Scabs”’ line “Are you sick and tired of being a man?” sounds like a pointed question that could’ve spilled forth from Davies’ quill. (It helps that Macero is often a dead vocal ringer for Davies.) For that matter, Davies could’ve penned the pleading “Will you ever let your light shine down over me?”, the highpoint on the twisty, five-minute-long album centerpiece, “When I Was A King”. The song lurches from anguished, dreary post-punk to a half-pace Johnny Thunders riff and finally a faux Stones-y coda. It’s a musical history lesson in reverse, to be sure, but unfortunately, the tune’s as disjointed as that description makes it sound. The band doesn’t have the gravitas to pull it off.

Much better are the moments when the band sticks to its default setting: snarky and freewheeling. Macero tries to elucidate the reasons he’s leaving a friend behind in Birmingham, AL, on “Magic City”. The prickly “How Does It Feel?” recalls the bounce of the brightest moments on Celebration. I hate damning a promising band by comparing its sophomore album to its superior predecessor, but hey, it’s happened before, and it’ll happen again.
The irony here is that the band almost seems to acknowledge that they are letdowns. Where the first album reveled in being a fuckup (think “Filthy Flowers”), Sickness is tinged with regret. On the closing “No End In Sight”, Macero, over a minor-key organ vamp, sighs, “I wish I was the man you thought would save you from the villains / I wish I was the man your father promised you would one day come”. That’s the saddest thing I’ve heard all year. Ultimately, Sickness is a frustrating record about being frustrated.

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