Tomas Doncker’s “The Mess We Made” Deluxe Reviewed
Tomas Doncker’s The Mess We Made was originally released on December 16th, 2015, and over a year later it remains a steadily, unsteadily prescient piece of work. If you thought 2015 was tough going for people of color, you ain’t seen nothing The deluxe version, released today, adds six songs to the existing eight for 61 minutes of state of the count political op-ed. My original review is below, and the new songs neither add nor detracts from the original’s concentrated attack. The changes go from a new album cover art, to the addition of his band, the True Groove Allstars, to top billing. And, of course, the new material. A groovy as a mo-fo take on Funkadelic’s “Funky Dollar Bill” (he should release it as the next single), to a down and grinding drop your panties with a great bassline played by Mike Griot, “Do Me Dirty”. The Doncker proto standard “Rise Above” makes a showing, an acoustic “Time Will Tell” and the anti-anthem “Peace” -which, as bleak as it is (“People are asking me what I’m doing? Trying to hang on…”) still finds the kernels of optimism if only in the guitar solo…
When Tomas Doncker was a child he was an inspired basketball player until losing a major tournament in High School. While his friends moped and griped, Doncker discovered he really didn’t care that much, he enjoyed playing the game for the games sake. The realization that his interest wasn’t in the competitiveness of sports, led him closer to his love for music which for him was a reflection of his mother: also a music lover. It was his mother’s inspiration and influence and consistent positive contribution that made him feel alright with passing on basketball, alright on auditioning for The Contortions back in the early 80s and following his guitar wherever it might take him.
I mention this because it explains what I have always felt is a feminine side to Doncker’s songwriting. I don’t mean effeminate, I mean more a certain gentleness to the restless spirit; you can hear it in uplifting songs like “Lucky Day” and the tender sorrow of “Children Of Darfur”. Even last year’s Big Apple Blues feels haunted by the spirit of his mother, “The New Day” is not simply mother church but mother mother, it is also a pan-cultural musical coming together, its spirit is female and Big Apple Blues, has surprisingly, a female quality to its rough hewn blues. “The New Day” is answered on his new album, The Mess We Made (released tomorrow) by “Church Burning Down” and the difference between searching for your spiritual home in the concrete jungle and watching that home burn to the ground (six black churches in one week last June) , is self-evident: it is the female and male.
Doncker dedicated The Mess We Made to his maternal grandfather, but for the first time the guiding spirit appears to be his politically active father. When I first heard of the project, I begged Donker to include a love song to offset the constant political hammering, to counter the despair, but he refused. And then, he was writing what felt like a new song every day, I begged him to expand it out, write more and more, instead he held back one song, and released a ten track, two sided, five song a side single disc that comes in at 36 minutes, ten minutes shorter than the average album. This concentrated its power into a burst of rage. It is as much a political statement as the album it reminds me of most, John Lennon and The Plastic Ono Band’s Sometime In New York City: it has the power of conviction, of force, of disbelief, of a black rage against just about everyone. It sounds so charged with politics, with a rush for answers, of a social, cultural, mental manipulated desire for freedom he has been promised, that it is a political statement, a political force. Like his father, who was deeply involved in black politics in the 1970s.
The first song, “Some Ol’ Dolls”, takes one of Tomas maternal Grandfather’s favorite phrases and recasts it as a statement of political paralysis. In effect, it targets Marx to state “the fight for racial equality is a class struggle” and its sense of personality politics as a fight is a re-imagining of his fathers political roots. Along with the Al Sharpton’s and Jesse Jacksons, and as much Shirley Chisholm as either, this was just post-MLK and the mainstreaming of Black political action was in its infancy. When Doncker says he doesn’t believe the black community has risen in the past 30 years, he is condemning a process he knows inside out. On “Some Ol’ Dolls” he summons his Grandfather to help him battle back, to express his anger in metaphor. A great song and the best thing musically about it is David Barnes harp, which seems to be striking out in response to Doncker’s hesitated fury. The song is all funky, snake bass and Doncker’s husky tear it up vocal, doubled up on the chorus, with Dixie in the background. Both personal and political, if his father was here, Doncker might express to him the current mess we made just that way.
“Church’s Burning Down” –the first single, as literal a response to the mass shooting that took place at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal and its aftermath as you could hope for, is the starting point for the album. But it is with “The Revolution” where he takes a very funky backing tracking, and introductory Barry White disco horns, and calls “Bullshit”, before advising us all to “take your hoodies off and pull your pants up”, that stakes are highest. The song is very revealing, and though in the first quarter of the album, it is central. It takes place now, but it has a foot in the past, echoing tirades like “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” with the response that not only will it be televised, it will also be sponsored. Almost burned by guilt for how life for African Americans has derailed after the promise of the 1960s, he apologizes to Malcolm X, but it is his father in the review mirror: this is as personal as politics gets. The stories begin to accumulate as the album continues, D’Angelo saw white chalk on concrete, Doncker sees blood on concrete, D’Angelo has covered the body, but Doncker can’t take his eyes off it. The Mess We Made doesn’t reach the place of redemption, it is still witnessing black lives that try to matter but get cut down before they can. Homelessness followed by aimlessness (on a U2 cover) till the slimmest of hopes takes us out of the album and back on the concrete.
Produced by James Dellatacoma, a very strange move for the always hands on Doncker, it frees him to concentrate on the songs which seemed to flow from him. It is really strange, it seems so easy it is almost as though they are improvised, but I know Doncker was writing the tracks directly onto tape and taking them to the studio and recorded them live before James overdubbed parts. The sound is full and full of surprises. It goes back to a media pro, Dellatacoma not Doncker this time, who adds every flourish he can think of to hook you in, the songs are sturdier than Big Apple Blues, and Doncker pours out his soul but hides at the same time. His unwillingness to romance the story gives it a starkness filled in by the arrangements. It is as though Doncker was keeping information to himself, as though he doesn’t want to make the political so personal, The Mess We Made is not on an island of horror, it is reflected in a black mood that became derailed with the murders of X and MLK and the difficulty of finding leaders for black youth. When he tells young Black America to pull up their pants, he isn’t giving a fashion tip, he is giving a warning.
If you listen to modern rap, you may be as shocked as I am that such complex musical ideas are being used to propagate a dangerous gangsta lifestyle. It is something The Mess We Made fights hard against, this is organic music, it is protest not simply from him to them but from him to us. His mother’s spirit guided the search for a Church of the soul on Big Apple Blues even as it found Doncker walking the streets at this midnight hour, The Mess We Made finds the ghosts of X and MLK in the spirit of his father as his last hope is that we respect the gifts we’ve been give. “Time is running out,” he warns. “And time will tell”