Let's clear up a possible confusion right up front. From its cover, you might think Tonio K
was a collection of traditional ethnic music. After all, the photograph ("courtesy of the Yugoslav tourist office, circa 1958," the singer notes) depicts two Eastern European men in traditional garb, including colorful blouses and skirts, brandishing sabers at each other (or perhaps doing a saber dance), while the copy reads, "Tonio K.
and N.Y.M. Co. Present: Yugoslavia
-- Love Songs & War Dances from Croatia, Serbia, Macedonia, Dalmatia, Bosnia, Slovenia (of the heart)." This is all a joke. Yugoslavia
is an album of Tonio K.
's typically acerbic pop/rock songs with no relation to the fragmented, war-torn European country. Though it is not billed as a compilation, the album seems to be a gathering of stray tracks dating back several years, probably assembled after Gadfly issued Tonio K.
's long-deferred Olé
album in 1997 and was interested in a follow-up. The songwriter hasn't really been active as a recording artist since issuing four albums and an EP between 1978 and 1988, but he has been working as a songwriter, and he notes that several of these songs were written for submission to established stars -- "I Know a Place" and "Murder My Heart" for Tina Turner
(whom he helpfully identifies as "former wife of R&B great Ike Turner
") and "Sure as Gravity" for Emmylou Harris
-- not that these people ever recorded them or, apparently, even heard them. Others were part of other people's recording projects that didn't come to fruition, such as three tunes written with and for, and recorded by, Charlie Sexton
, but given Tonio K.
vocals so they could be used here. But no matter what the origins or intentions of the tracks, they bear the singer's trademark. His basic philosophy is expressed in one of the song titles, "Life's Just Hard," and that's a theme he reiterates throughout, from leadoff track "16 Tons of Monkeys" ("And it's a hard lesson") to "I Know a Place" ("Ain't nothing fair in life"). Love is hailed as the only salvation from life's difficulties, and by the trio of songs that end the album -- "Sure as Gravity," "Home to You," and "I've Got a Song Anyway" -- it seems to have won out. But life's hardness gets the lion's share of the attention. Tonio K.
sings in a gruff baritone reminiscent of Peter Wolf over modestly rocking tracks, and doubtless a more distinctive performer could make more out of what is essentially a collection of demos. But the sarcasm the singer employed on earlier albums, which could be funny sometimes, has given way to a bitterness only occasionally leavened by absurdity, which makes Yugoslavia
a less engaging effort.