Artist: Tonio K  
Label: Gadfly Records, Inc. 
You can stop holding your breath.  Ole is finally out, and it's worth the wait.  Why the long interim between its 1990 completion and the 1997 release? Let's  just say it had to do with Tonio K being dropped from his record label when it was purchased by another.  The new label determined that giving the money to Janet Jackson was a wiser business move.  After all, she was going topless on her next album cover and, therefore, likely to sell millions more records.  Tonio K, by contrast, is not nearly so camera-ready, not to mention being a virtually unknown entity in the record business.  A fact that ought to be remedied.  Period.  
By his own admission, Tonio K is not the world's best singer.  He certainly can't hit those high notes like Janet, and I bet he can't dance half as well either.  On the other hand, there are singers like Bob Dylan and Lou Reed who make Tonio's vocals rather welcome.  Besides, he's got an interesting Elvis-esque warble.  What he lacks in subtle vocal beauty,  he more than makes up for in his emotional resonance.  He delivers each song with an earnest effectiveness that draws the listener in.  He feels his lyrics, and the listener does too.   
Ole compares favorably to his previous two releases:  Romeo Unchained and Notes from a Lost Civilization.  (He's made more albums than that, but these three are his most recent and the only ones produced post conversion...if you care to know such things.)  On the whole, Ole is a stronger album despite the fact that producer T Bone Burnett considers it unfinished.  The overall sound is more rootsy and retro and closer to a pleasant blend of true rock, blues, and folk music than to an amalgamation of 80s new wave pop sounds. The drum programming is gone in favor of rhythms that are more varied and less relentlessly monotonous.  Additionally, Tonio's vocals are also less buried and disguised with effects, and more in focus and forward in the mix.  These are all obvious choices for Tonio K, and he seems more comfortable with this raw, revamped sound.  The resulting production is less muddled and noisy than previous works, with fewer synthesized keyboard parts and studio effects. Instead we are treated to more traditional instruments such as harmonicas, Hammond organs, acoustic and rock guitars, and real drums!  The guitar work is exceptional.  All these instruments are played well by a super-talented band that reads like a who's who of other unknown entities deserving of more mainstream attention like Tonio K himself.  Of course, T-Bone Burnett and Paul Westerberg are obvious exceptions.  But I bet your average lay person on the street couldn't tell you much about David Hildago, Peter Case, Charlie Sexton, Bruce Thomas, and Booker T. Jones.  Not to mention David Raven.  Pity.  Many of these players made appearances on Tonio K's last pair of albums, but here they play music closer to their collective common ground.  None of them have played for Janet.   
Although Ole is less thematically unified than Romeo Unchained, it doesn't have the uneven quality of Notes from a Lost Civilization.  Every song here is both a story worth hearing and a melody worth singing along to.  And it won't take you long to be singing along either.  Tonio K's true gift is witty songwriting.  He is a master at turning a phrase that is both clever and insightful.  One of the trademarks of his style is the use of repetitive phrases to build, clarify, and add humor to his story.  For example, from "Pardon Me for Living": 

    Pardon me for being such a disappointment 
    Pardon me for making so many mistakes 
    Pardon me for betraying your gracious employment 
    Pardon me, I guess I just haven't got what it takes 
    I don't know what you want 
    Don't know what you believe 
    I don't know how to act anymore 
    or how long I can keep juggling. 

    I hope my congressperson can forgive me 
    I hope I've not offended my beloved president 
    But I wanna know 
    Where is that nation under God 
    With liberty and justice and blah, blah, blah? 
    It was a great idea on paper 
    But it hasn't actually happened yet. 
    Now maybe I'm a wild card 
    Or maybe I'm a trend 
    Maybe I'm a 200 million-headed monster 
    and you will hear from us again. 
    Can I ever possibly hope to pass inspection 
    Can't I just confess and be forgiven 
    Guilty of the grievous crime 
    Of making such suggestions 
    Pardon me, pardon me, pardon me for living.

Never overly redundant, and certainly not boring, Tonio K instead couples the repetition with his unique vocals to successfully retain your attention. Other examples abound, especially in earlier works like "I Can't Stop."  His acerbic wit and insight are also evident throughout.  "What a Way to Live" is a bitingly humourous account of a wicked former girlfriend who hasn't learned to let it go.  It's a nice contrast to "I'll Remember You," which is a beautiful ballad of unrequited love.  "We Walk On" is very nearly a hymn celebrating persistence, and "Come with Me" has some wonderful lyrics about  that celestial country where "acts of compassion are valued like pieces of art."  "Stuck" is, in Tonio's words, "a self-explanatory familial history set  to the big beat" and a rocking rhythm and blues-injected number featuring Paul Westerberg on rhythm guitar.  It also has the kind of energy that "City Life" only hinted at resulting in Tonio's most roaring, foot-stomping song to date. The strongest cut on the album, however, is "Hey Lady."  It's absolutely not funny at all.  In it Tonio K and a guitar painfully recount the story of one woman's abuse of her children.  The effect is absolutely chilling and tear-jerking and "the closest to pure journalism" Tonio K recalls ever writing. There are other highlights, of course, but far too many to name here.  This is one of those rare albums with so many great moments that your favorite song is likely to change depending on your mood and the weather.  I regret that none of these songs are likely to support videos with lavish masquerades of scantily-clad dancers.  
If you're looking for an album that deals honestly with living life with faith in a dangerous, broken world, then Ole is for you.  If you're just looking to bust a move, go prove his former label true and pick up some Janet.  Her albums may be more titillating, but lately they lack more than a handful of substance.  Tonio K has grabbed this bull by the horns and wrestled it to the ground with great style.  Ole!     
(For the record, I own as many Janet Jackson albums as I do Tonio K.  So there.) 
By Steven Stuart Baldwin 


Before I tell you how great this record is, and it is great, let me digress the way Tonio does in the first pages of the cd book that came with the disc. Let me tell you what happened to this record in the almost ten years since its recording. Tonio relates that he and T-Bone Burnett put together the band, including himself and T-Bone with Bruce Thomas, Booker T, Marc Ribot, and David Raven, in the spring of '89. The band, along with such notables as Peter Case, Charlie Sexton, and Paul Westerberg, to name a few, began recording the album when suddenly A&M Records was sold, and as a result, people around the project were downsized and Tonio K was dropped because he was only a marginal seller of records (50,000 or less). Tonio had managed to finish the album in the meantime, but the company wasn't going to press it. (However, you and I know that some of the best music ever recorded gets ignored or never released because of some executives' bottom line being sales and money. It is a shame, but that's show business, I guess.) Here's the good news. Mitch Cantor and Gadfly Records pursued A&M Records wanting to acquire Tonio K's catalog, and finally bought the finished tapes of Ole, printed it, and put it on the shelves. Now, thanks to the good sense and persistance of those at Gadfly Records, Ole has gotten past the politics of record companies and into the ears of pleased music lovers.   

The record starts with a tune called "Stop the Clock," with its rock-a-billy beat and pulsing rhythm, it made time stand still. We soon realize that this whole record is timeless. Recorded years ago, the sound is still fresh -- that's the magic of well written rock music. Even the second song, "Time Steps Aside," gives a nod to time not mattering, even stepping aside, to what is one's personal style. The song is the story of a girl out of a hippy time that is still wearing that era well. I think I know some girls like that.  
One of Tonio K's strongest points is that he is an exceptionally good songwriter. He tells stories without telling you too much. He pulls you into the account but lets you fill in the blanks with the one whom the song brings to your mind. His word pictures include that of a long lost lover, like one of the very best songs on the record, "I'll Remember You," a lament of a perfect seventeen year old summer love. He may sing of someone you'll remember that is almost venomous toward you like the subject of "What a Way to Live," of which he says:    

      Now anyone that knows me won't believe you,  
      and anyone that doesn't doesn't care;  
      and anyone that spends a little time with you  
      will soon realize the danger lurking there. 
As a songwriter, Tonio can fill in the blanks if it suits him, as well. One memorable narrative is the song "Hey Lady," in which he tells us a moving and true story about an abusive mother, and the kids she's crushed with her fist and her shouts. The record ends with the inspired song "We Walk On" about the shared experience of mankind of growing up, coming of age, running into 
      ...confusion and illusion,  
      through the floods and the fire.  
      We walk back to the future,  
      we walk away from the flame.  
      We walk back to the beginning  
      where we're given a new name.  
      We walk on.  
      We walk on.
Tonio mentions in the cd book that T-Bone would have liked to "finish" and re-mix these songs, but there was no way to get the multi-track tape and then to take the time to tweek them was out of the question, but this is still a great CD. Possibly Tonio K's most shining of moments. I've been listening to Tonio K's music since I bought "Amerika" in 1980 and his quirky voice and guitar driven rock has mellowed some, but is still stirring and strong, even more so. This cd is very much worth the trouble to find it if you're a fan of simply wonderful rock and roll. 
By Tony LaFianza