Knoxville’s finest are still that city’s big dogs, and no amount of physical and psychic loss they’ve experienced will ever diminish that fact.
BY FRED MILLS
Tim and Susan Bauer Lee are now on their third outing as Bark, the Knoxville, Tenn., husband-and-wife team which, for a short while, overlapped with their previous trio, the Tim Lee 3. For those of us who have been charting their evolution over the years up to their current incarnation as a kind of self-enclosed small/mobile/intelligent musical duo, Terminal Everything represents a bit of a culmination of promise… it is one motherfucker of an album, and I use that term on more than just a colloquial level. It kicks ass, sure, featuring the kinds of indelible rock ’n’ roll hooks that Tim has been serving up since the early ‘80s in the Windbreakers (reference: yours truly’s dissection of 1985’s Terminal as part of my “The College Rock Chronicles” series), not to mention the muscular rhythmic nuances that Susan brought to the fore throughout the TL3’s tenure (for your consideration: a review of the band’s 2016 swansong Tin, Man).
Not to mention that this album further refines the pair’s steady incursions into bluesier, and at times heavier, territory, areas that were certainly signposted over the years and which bubbled decisively to the surface on 2017’s scabrous-yet-elegant Year of the Dog, spotlighted by such dusky jewels as the baritone guitar-fueled “How You Gonna Miss Me” and the minimalist trudge of “World of Regret.” There was also a Link Wray-centric sonic depth charge submerged deep in the middle of the album, but you’ll have to work for that one, gentle listeners. I’m not here to hold your hand.
I’m not here to hold Tim or Susan’s hand either, other than to tell them that… I get it. And this album, put simply, destroys me. It’s more than just the fact that I already know about their losing Tim’s mom and Susan’s pop, plus their beloved pooches, which of course anyone with half an aorta could understand might inform songs subsequently written in the aftermath of an emotional trauma. “This world just wants to break my heart,” the Lees intone together, somberly, against the low-key, garage-twang arrangement of “This World,” and it comes across as far, far more profoundly than if uttered as a throwaway line by an 18-year old pop tart singer wholly unaware of what the word “break” fully implies. Here, the song ends up as gospel reverie, and anyone who has even the slightest knowledge about gospel music will understand that when people write and sing songs in this manner, they’re not making an observation—they’re asking, in some manner, for deliverance.
Many of the other songs similarly trace the lines of existential darkness. For deeply personal reasons, I’m drawn over and over to opening track “Walk Small” which is clearly dedicated to their aforementioned doggos, with its metaphorical depiction of how it feels to one day hear four paws gently padding the house, only to realize on the next day how that subtle sound is abruptly absent; the music hearkens to some of Tim’s classic Windbreakers power pop compositions, thanks to his instinctive riff sense, and the gentle chorus harmonies that Tim excelled at with bandmate Bobby Sutliff back in the day and has subsequently found a second co-voice in Susan. Each time I hear the lines, “You graced us with your presence/ We didn’t know how good we had / You never let go of your essence / Even when it all went bad,” I think about my own hairy children, in particular Sammy The Dawg, who is now about 14, knowing that when I inevitably, finally have to say goodbye to him, I will say to myself, “I didn’t know how good it was.” But hearing those lines at this moment in time simply makes me want to sing along, and celebrate another creature’s noble existence.
And the churning surf/garage/blooze workout “Apocalypse Shimmy,” though dark as Kentucky coal (it’s written by Cody Cox), demonstrates how a musician can peer deep into the darkness and then find his or her way back from the edge simply by, as the saying goes, kicking out the fucking jams. A little reverb and a lotta tremolo can do wonders when someone’s needing some relief, ya know?
A decade or so ago, in a long conversation I had with Patti Smith, she made the observation that part of the artist’s job is to provide a shoulder for the rest of us to lean on when we need that kind of solace and reassurance: You are not alone. I have gone through this myself. I’ve believed that ever since. And Terminal Everything, despite its death-centric title and myriad bleak moments, is not an album about despairing or giving up. It’s about voicing, acknowledging, and accepting the stuff all of us have to go through, and then offering an outstretched hand.
Accept that offer with your own hand, just like the two hands are doing on the cover of this remarkably moving record, easily the best independent release—hell, just make that the best album—I have heard in 2019 thus far.
Postscript: This also gets my vote for best record sleeve of the year, hands down. A limited-to-300-copies, hand-numbered vinyl edition, it offers a 3-color, hand-printed, letterpress sleeve courtesy Knoxville’s Striped Light Letterpress company, and it is as tactile-compelling as it is visually arresting. You can also score it on regular CD or download, of course—and I would be remiss by not mentioning that if you drop into the BandCamp link for the album, above, you might want to check out a digital-only album they have up on the site called Quake Orphans, which hearkens back to a long-out-of-print limited edition from 2013 that is now newly available. Just sayin’….
TRACKS TO TRACK DOWN: “Walk Small,” “This World,” “Apocalypse Shimmy,” “Chimneyville”