64. Notes From the Lost Civilization – Tonio K
NOTES FROM THE LOST CIVILIZATION (1988)
Tonio K released two albums for the Christian market in the mid 80’s on What? Records. Both of them reach the Top 100 on this list. Both a must own album and truly brilliant works. Both are completely different musically and differ greatly in topic and theme.
More will be said about Tonio K in a future post, but it should be noted here that for nearly three decades he released some of the most important releases that no one knows about. Before embracing the Christian faith Tonio K released several critically lauded and publicly ignored masterpieces.
The same rang true in Christian music circles.
I believe “Notes” was the last release for What? Records, a brilliant label whose imprint was the kiss of death in the CCM world. I cannot confirm this right now, but I believe every What? Records release appears on this countdown. The label was a joint effort between Word Records and A&M with the intent to bring Christian music to the masses with artists that had the chops and integrity to pull off the crossover.
Where Tonio’s CCM debut (Romeo Unchained) was driven by technology and “new wave” rhythms and production, “Notes” was organic, blues and country influenced Americana rock and roll set in the heart of city life and suburban nightmares. There are two versions of the album with the Word released version not containing a song that will be discussed later. No one should own the Word version and I refused to carry that version in my store at the time.
The album kicks off with “Without Love,” which is about as simple a theme as one will hear from Tonio K, but in normal Tonio K fashion, there is a twist and attitude that makes it something completely out of the ordinary. Borrowing the common theme from 1 Corinthians 13 that all we do is meaningless unless it done in love, Tonio delivers the common theme with uncommon stories of “people on the moon and under the oceans” and how the world works to divide us rather than bring us together.
“Children’s Crusade” bemoans the lies believed by a younger generation that theirs will be the one to create the Utopia we long for. This was no more obvious than the 60’s generation of love and peace that discovered the cruel realities of the workings of the world. The wonderful, simple production of T-Bone Burnett here helps the brutality of the lyrics realize their stark reality.
“Stay” continues one theme from the previous album; love is hard. The mid tempo ballad recognizes the desire to keep love going and around and the cost associated with the vulnerability. The theme of forgiveness and commitment to vows has always been woven throughout Toni K’s music, but here it takes on a more transparent position. this coupled with some of the best vocals on the album make it a real highlight.
On the rockier side, “City Life” reveals that life in Los Angeles for those that would have it no other way. Despite describing it like “living in a civil war zone,” there is a vibrancy and passion that is all-consuming and attractive. This is also some of Burnett’s best production, restraining the song from becoming the punk laden music of early Tonio K, while providing a bounce and punch that reveals what city life is like.
Tonio K was never really known for the acoustic ballad before his foray into Christian Music, but its presence on the two albums, especially here, is stunning and beautiful. “You Were There,” co-written with John Keller, is really a wonderful song with a great vocal performance that drives the song from start to finish. It would be a mistake to automatically assume that God is the subject, but rather the love and guidance that God provides to us through others.
There are not many songs about the Devil that sound as quite as cool as “The Executioner’s Song.” But most songs about the Devil were not written by Tonio K. His ability to add a line or phrase unexpectedly is such a treat. Here he notes the Devil wears hats, and for some reason, it is just funny. Great organ work here by Booker T drives the song.
“I Can’t Stand It” is more funky and groove oriented than most of the songs on the album and fits into a classification of surf/punk/soul music that marked Tonio’s earlier works, especially “Amerika.” It is also closer to the “angrier” K where false religions take the brunt of his caustic tongue.
The song left off of the Word distributed release is the funny and brilliant “What Women Want.” Even at that time the song was nowhere near offensive outside of simply using the word “sex” in the lyrics. By the time the chorus rolls around it is obvious the point of the song. Literally it was one of the worst and most offensive decisions in CCM music history. It was completely knee-jerk and needless.
It is also the best song on the album!
“I Can’t Stop” is a love song. Or at least a Tonio K love song. Funky and cool, with a great rhythm section driving a fun and energetic melody, the song fits right in with “I Can’t Stand It” and “City Life.” The “world is against us” theme continues here.
The album closes with “Where Is That Place,” a Tonio K take on the US. He asks what happened to the America we grew up in, or at least the one we grew up believing existed.
it used to be the teacher’s favorite country
it used to be the showplace of the west
and everyone smiled
it used to be another word for the best
where is that place?
where did it go?
whatever happened to that place?
god only knows
that isn’t it over there
and this isn’t it here
now how did a place that big just disappear?
A perfect close to an album where Tonio K’s odd and thoughtful take on the obvious and common radiates throughout. He would record a third album for A&M that never saw the light of day through the company and later was released independently as “Ole.” My only comment about that album is that it is worth tracking down and may possess the best Tonio K ever in “Hey Lady.”