With so much music writing on the internet now, it has become harder for me to discover bands that really get me excited. Most of the new bands have already been written about endlessly by a million different websites, which makes it impossible for me to build an authentic connection to the music. And the older bands that are deemed “important” and fit into established music narratives are often mythologized in a way that instantly turns me off from them, because I hate it when people tell me what I should like and how I should perceive something before I even get a chance to experience it myself. The sweet spot, I’ve found, is the older bands that aren’t really talked about anymore, usually because they don’t quite fit into a convenient narrative about the era they performed in and/or didn’t have the level of acclaim to be considered Important Music. The reasons these bands aren’t considered important are why I end up liking them so much: they’re not being cited as an influence and emulated endlessly by people today, which often means they made weird, less mainstream music in a style that hasn’t been diluted (yet) by the works of other inferior bands.
One of these bands that I’ve been into lately since randomly hearing them on a radio show is Algebra Suicide, a husband/wife duo of Don Hedeker and Lydia Tomkiw. They performed from the late 80s-mid 90s and built a small following before the couple got divorced in 1993 and the band broke up in 1995. It doesn’t sound like they ever made much money or got much critical acclaim, but I think their music is really cool, and it conveniently has a couple traits that I’ve been obsessed with lately. The biggest one is that the band doesn’t have a traditional singer — instead, Tomkiw reads her poetry over Hedeker’s guitar riffs and a drum machine.
This talking instead of straight-up singing thing has been an ongoing fascination for me — two of my favorite songs last year, Courtney Barnett’s “Avant Gardener” and Magik Markers’ “American Sphinx Face” had this kind of style, and a lot of my older artists I enjoy like Life Without Buildings, The Fall, Patti Smith, and Laurie Anderson (who is the most obvious and frequent comparison to Algebra Suicide) can be grouped into the talk-singing “genre.” I think a lot of the appeal for me is that there’s something inherently daring about talking instead of singing. The lyrics and emotion of the vocalist can’t hide behind a catchy melody or impressive vocal acrobatics — in every Algebra Suicide song, Tomkiw is basically talking directly to the listener, daring them to form an opinion on her.
In the absence of traditional singing, talk-singers need to find other ways to express emotion and character, either through their words or the way they say their words. Some of them, like Sue Tompkins and Mark E. Smith, have a ton of energy and cram in as many words as possible, which suits their more free-wheeling, rambling lyrical styles. Tomkiw falls on the opposite end of that spectrum: her delivery is very deadpan, almost lethargic, and her poetry isn’t particularly wordy, instead relying on short, clipped phrasing and a thick Midwestern accent that adds a lot of color to her lyrics. Hedeker backs that up with a similarly simple approach, matching her words with repetitious guitar parts and drum machine beats. Algebra Suicide follows this formula on every song in the absence of traditional verses, choruses, or hooks.
The danger of this kind of band is that their songs could all start to sound alike and blur together when you listen to an album of them. Algebra Suicide avoids this mostly due to Tomkiw’s skill as a poet. I find there to be a very noticeable difference between a poet who is singing and a singer who thinks they’re a poet, and Tomkiw is definitely in the former category. Her lyrics are a significant cut above typical pop music lyrics that always make me think the band was just sitting around with a rhyming dictionary, trying to get the whole writing process over with. A good example is my favorite song by the band, “Heat Wave,” which has really vivid imagery describing a hot boring day in the city.
Algebra Suicide released a handful of albums, though I’ve found most of them impossible to find. Miraculously, “The Secret Like Crazy,” a 1988 compilation of their early singles and other unreleased songs, is available on streaming services. It contains their most well-known songs and worked well for me as an introduction to the band’s style. I also found a blog that compiled all of Lydia Tomkiw’s lyrics, which is a really useful resource that also doubles as a book of excellent poetry.