Pop Culture

Review: Seth Timbs

We played up and around the Northwest this weekend, and low vitamin-D combined with the dreary similitudes of the hockey arenas of winter touring left me reaching for the medicine of earnest music. I chose a Tennessean to rescue me from this territory’s gray sarcasm: an artist named Seth Timbs, former frontman of the Fluid Ounces (of Spongebath Records: former home to Self and The Features). His One Man Argument—released too quietly last year—took a walk with me around Eugene, Oregon, the home of the Ducks and good pot.

An aptly titled album, Timbs plays almost all the instruments including keyboards (his métier), guitars, bass, drums and percussion (live and programmed). Flute is heard on several tracks, though I suspect Timbs’s wife Malin is the player, also a fine musician and previously of Celtish band The Secret Commonwealth.

When an artist writes, records, mixes, and masters his or her own album entirely, there are often some extra-musical motivations afoot, i.e. the artist is proud, broke, antisocial, etc. Given the classist mockery of “Trophy Wife” and “Earl of Sandwich,” Timbs doesn’t sound like he vacations in the Hamptons. Nor does he sound like he’s cutting corners; One Man Argument is an introspective feat, and this auteur’s hand requires sway over the entire orchestra.

The opener “Horsefeathers”—which encapsulates Timbs’s harmonic literacy and commitment to conjunct melodies,* techniques he employs throughout the album via twelve distinct songwriting styles—introduces the album’s salient theme: denial, or the obstinate person’s attempts to shove square pegs into round holes. He philosophizes: “Put together a horse with feathers / That contraption won’t take wing.” More on this didacticism later; but first, some love songs. “Don’t Worry” is the pretty little sister with braces to The Kinks’ “Strangers.”** “Meant to be Apart” is John Lennon-as-cowboy’s “antidote” to a “lethal dose” of a failed marriage. Then the hilarious “Trophy Wife,” a sardonic proposal a la Katrina and the Waves’ “Walking on Sunshine.” David attempts to woo Goliath on “Make You Love Me” by showing off his piano chops (Goliath spurns David’s advances with his flute playing).

A brief instrumental intermission called “Kingfisher” claims that it is “The Flying Walrus.”***

Then things get seriouser. “Overlong” nods to early Blur and ’70s synth-prog, though it gazes at its shoes, alas, overlong for my taste. But it effectually transitions to “The Little Things,” which laments the underdog condition like Thom Yorke used to do before he cashed his royalty checks and bought a lifetime supply of glow sticks (I’m not complaining, mind you). And just when I fear Timbs has lost his sense of humor, he ends “The Little Things” with a Picardy third**** and then gives us the best track on the album: “Earl of Sandwich,” the ancient ancestor of the earlier “Trophy Wife.” Reverse effect electric guitars, tremolo-picked mandolins, arpeggiated glockenspiel, and flutes luxuriate in this line: “Marry me, Genevieve / If not for love, then for money alone.” It’s haunting stuff. While I enjoy it’s two forerunners less than the rest of Timbs’s Argument, the context they provide allows the lavish “Earl” to shine more brilliantly.

Now, about that didacticism I mentioned earlier. Some listeners may find our man Timbs’ moralizing to be annoying, but I say his wisdom rings true, particularly on the penultimate “It’s Not How Good You Are.” I’d love to force feed this track to every narcissist I ever worked for, and I suspect Timbs would too. “It’s how good you seem to be.” In other words, don’t be an asshole.

Reading about these songs could make Seth Timbs sound like a cynic, but his music and lyrics are too sincere for this to be the case. A curmudgeon, perhaps, but he’s more romantic than cynical. And when our man concludes his Argument with something so resigned as, “They don’t have to see, they have heard and believe / There’s heaven on top of, there’s fire beneath / And once they’re convinced, they’ll drop the suspense / And fall to whatever will be,” all I wanna do is give him a hug and a trillion-dollar record deal. He whistles the outro on “Whatever Will Be” as if to say, “Don’t mind me. I’m just a mega talent you’ve never heard of.”

Well Seth, I hear you loud and clear. Dear reader, now you should too.

*By conjunct I mean stepwise and smooth (think Beethoven’s Ninth—”Ode to Joy”).

**Actually, One Man Argument is something of a thematic foil to The Kinks’ Lola Versus Powerman and The Moneygoround. The latter expresses its anxieties about money in story songs while the former relies on aphorism.

***”Flying” meets “I Am the Walrus.” Get it? Come on, people! Magical Mystery Tour

****A Picardy third is when the final chord of a minor key piece is its parallel major. Bach used to do it all the time, but these days it comes off as a little hokey. Timbs gets a pass because he straight rocks it: “Yeah, I used a Picardy third. Kiss my Baroque butt if you don’t like it.”

Hesiod James is a Nashville sideman. He plays bass.