Day Eighty-Eight: Toh Kay

by Tom Noonan

Streetlight Manifesto has never been abrasive, exactly, but the urgency and bombast of their music never really seemed to match up with the intimacy of their most affecting lyrics.  It often felt like they were using a chainsaw to cut hearts out of construction paper, like their music was doing more to destroy the personal relationship with the listener than it was to enhance it.  This wasn’t always true, to be sure, but when lead singer Tomas Kalnoky wasn’t running recklessly through fragmented crime narratives, his backing band seemed to puff out his chest when all he wanted to do was collapse inwards.  This made for awkwardly moving tracks like “A Better Place, A Better Time”, where Kalnoky’s intense reflection on a friend’s suicide attempt is forced downhill until the song’s momentum swallows his raw emotion whole.  By the time he gets to the second chorus, which features the perfectly comforting coda, “And when you wake up/Everything is going to be fine/I guarantee you’ll wake in a better place, in a better time”, the song’s become all fuzzed out guitars and overbearing horn sections.  Streetlight Manifesto, at moments like this one, was all about the cannibalization of its own strengths, seemingly hedging their bets on the live show danceability of their songs over everything else.

I’m not here to diminish the idea that starting a ska band in New Jersey is a good thing.  I think it is.  I think ska bands from New Jersey are a lot more fun to see live than pretty much any other type of band there is.  Those shows are all knees and elbows, the dancing in the pit an infectious cocktail of awkwardness and “move or get flattened” seriousness.  It’s something you can’t really explain without actually being there and experiencing it.

What I am trying to get at is the idea that a genre can sometimes diminish the potential of a certain talent.  In the case of Tomas Kalnoky, the genre he was born into was the square hole to his cylindrical shape.  The ska scene was never meant to support the emotional weight he carried with him and that’s why I’m so excited about Kolnaky’s new record.  To be released under the name Toh Kay, Kolnaky reworked[1] his band’s most recent album, The Hand that Thieves, into ten meditative, absorbing songs that are strung together unlike any of his albums up to this point.  It was an interesting experiment on paper, but the results are just short of revelatory.  With his voice sanded down to its softer core, Kolnaky sounds like something close to a fully formed artist, each one of his songs washing over you like the slow, steady approach of a warm tide.  The key to this album’s success is its control of momentum, its economy in pacing.  Kolnaky is at his best when he’s taking his time.

The album itself, as well as its full band counterpart, is in the process of being liberated from Victory Records, the band’s label, who is reportedly upset with Kolnaky and his band’s abrupt decision to take an indefinite hiatus.  While this is certainly frustrating, the album itself is undeniably excellent, the arrival of an artist finally getting room to speak on his own terms, and a number of the songs can already be found popping up around the internet.  In the meantime, here is Kolnaky’s reworking of the song, “Better Place, Better Time”, which finally finds the tone and focus it deserves:

[1] And by reworked, I mean he moved the horn parts over to an acoustic guitar section.