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777 Vol. III

[Black Tent Press; 2011]

By ; February 3, 2012 

Purchase at: Insound (Vinyl) | Amazon (MP3 & CD) | iTunes | MOG

Tony Jeffrey is 63 years old, according to his Last.fm profile. He lives in Toronto, Canada, has been recording music since sometime in the eighties, and has produced hours’ worth of music videos (here’s one of my favorites) that seem to have garnered dual responses: bemused admiration on the part of his steadily-growing cult following, and removal for violating the site’s obscenity clauses on the part of YouTube staffers. His stage name is Tonetta, and as one article recently mentioned, “He has also publicly stated, on YouTube, that he (Tony) is in love with Tonetta (his female moniker) and that he, how do I put this lightly, performs sexual acts upon himself whilst viewing his own videos.”

So focusing on Tonetta’s music as opposed to the “whole package,” including persona and videos, might seem to miss the point a bit. After all, Tonetta rose to prominence (“prominence”) in the first place thanks to YouTube; how could Jeffrey’s lascivious performances, done often masked and/or in drag, not attach themselves to our notions of the artist’s songs? Indeed, considered as its own entity, his music — largely composed of rigid 4/4 beats, crunchy guitar and keyboard work, and steady bass lines, all glazed with the kind of lo-fi production Ariel Pink used to similarly bewildering effect circa the The Doldrums — is almost shockingly normal. In this way, he reminds me of, yes, Lady Gaga. Like the “Born This Way” singer, Jeffrey attempts to push boundaries through his overall performance art instead of just through his music. While many of his songs are as catchy as “Paparazzi” or “Telephone,” it is the general mise-en-scène that lingers in the audience’s memory: the cross-dressing, the straightforward single-camera footage, the delightfully vulgar lyrics, the sexy dance moves. In many respects, the songs are besides the point, which admittedly makes it a challenge to critically examine his records.

Speaking of records, Tonetta has released three of them over the past couple of years, compiling a veritable “greatest hits” collection from his extensive catalog of spooky pop-rock and putting them out on limited-edition vinyl through LA-based label Black Tent Press. His latest, following 2010’s 777 and 777 Vol. II is, predictably, titled 777 Vol. III. Running well over an hour and a half and spanning 29 songs, this double-LP represents a thematic shift in Tonetta’s artistic concerns. Not that he’s gotten any less sex-obsessed, of course. For instance, the song in the second video to which I linked here, originally called “Small Cock, Big Heart,” has been renamed “Glory Hole” and uses the chorus to rhyme the (older) title with, “Your meat is trash, but your love is art.”

But Tonetta has branched out on his latest record. Not only does he sometimes get political, for example, but he does so via direct references to current world leaders. He mocks Barack Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize on “Obama’s Prize,” demands “the proof of a hanging, the proof of death” on “Saddam,” and ironically states that “life begins” on the titular “Planet Lip Bush.” Meanwhile, album closer “Hey Does Anybody Know I’m Here” and the, er, strongly titled “This Nigger Don’t Run” both speak to the perils of self-identity, though they do so through different lenses, grappling with questions of historical insignificance and societal racism, respectively.

And really, why shouldn’t Tonetta attempt to contribute to the discourse on identity politics? Jeffrey has made a career out of not just toying with but gleefully obliterating his audience’s expectations. Tonetta is a study in gender androgyny and sexual ambiguity, equally content to encourage a woman to “Be My Concubine,” proudly proclaim that “I’m a chick with a dick” on opener “Ride Me,” and request that a male suitor “put that bone, yeah, drive it in” on “Pressure Zone.” Never one for subtlety, Tonetta shares John Waters’ search for the sublime to be found in filth, and even if you don’t take these explorations very seriously when they come from someone like this, I can’t think of a reason why, say, racial vulgarity (e.g. the titular “Nigger”) is any more or less appropriate than that of the sexual variety.

No, the only problem with Jeffrey’s broadened lyrical focus is that it’s hardly reflected in his musical choices. Sure, there are baby steps towards sonic evolution; acoustic guitars, left- and right- channel discrepancies, and a (slightly) more polished finish work to somewhat distinguish 777 Vol. III from its two predecessors. But the chord changes, rhythmic tempos, and general feel of his songs remain unchanged. These tracks are catchy, don’t get me wrong, but did this really have to be a double album? It’s not like he’s making room for aesthetic experimentation here, and after hearing the umpteenth C-Am-F-G sequence it’s hard not to wish Jeffrey had taken more care in trimming the fat and removing the veritable duplicates that make up a regrettably decent portion of this release. Even if you regard Tonetta as some sort of latter-day countercultural institution (which is probably an overgenerous estimation), there simply isn’t enough new (or at least new-sounding) material here to justify a 100-minute release. And those looking to get acquainted with Tonetta’s work would do better to check out the first installment in the 777 series.

So who is 777 Vol. III supposed to be for, exactly? Die-hard followers? Collectors of the obscene and the bizarre? It’s probably the case that like his videos, these songs are made for nobody in particular but rather have been produced as a natural extension of the life Jeffrey has built for his beloved Tonetta persona, a debauched Pygmalion setting up camp on the fringes of artistic expression. After all, it would be selfish of Jeffrey to not share with the world such a luminous character. Still, a little variety never hurt anybody; Tonetta the performer puts it all out there, but Tonetta the songwriter seems unexpectedly prudish.


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