Artist: Tim Be Told
Album: Friends and Foes
In Brief: I admire Tim’s vulnerability as he takes a peek into broken relationships and tries to figure out where things went wrong and how to take the first steps toward reconciliation. But while Tim is a fabulous singer, the music on this record is often a bit too pretty and pristine to really match the conflicts that have led him to bare his soul.
Tim Ouyang, the lead singer and only remaining member of Tim Be Told, is pretty used to being a minority within a minority at this point. You know how Christians in a band can often be construed as making “Christian rock” only for Christian audiences, making others unsure of whether the music is meant for them or if they will get anything out of it? That’s a struggle that it sounds like the band has identified with for most of their career. On top of that, the band’s membership throughout its history has been mostly Asian-American. So, at least for anyone looking at a photo or a live performance video of the band, this can lead to the unfortunate assumption that this is music made for a minority group, even though there’s nothing inherently “Asian” about their style of music or the way Tim sings. (If anything, just listening to the guy, you’d more easily mistake him for an African-American singer, considering his impressive vocal range and stylistic choices.) Neither of these things have ever been an issue for me if the music is good. Eric Owyoung (no relation) of Future of Forestry has been one of my favorite singer/songwriters for over a decade now, having successfully defied the musical and cultural stereotypes expected of a “Christian” band fronted by an Asian-American singer/songwriter. With Tim Be Told, I simply didn’t get into the music right now because the more piano-based, R&B-inflected brand of pop/rock they performed didn’t strike me as all that different from some of the stuff I was hearing on Christian radio, aside from the more talented vocalist. With those influences, I kept thinking they had echoes of The Reign of Kindo, a longtime favorite band of mine with a lot of jazz and R&B influence to their brand of rock music with spiritual overtones that flew under the radar of what’s marketed as “Christian music”. But it wasn’t fair of me to expect that same level of musical sophistication from a band not aiming for it. (And I’ll be honest, I also thought the band’s name was kinda dumb. Turns out, so did Tim when it was first suggested to him. But “Truth Be Told” was already taken, so it stuck.) So I sort of forgot about them for a while until the release of Tim’s latest album, Friends and Foes, coincided with a piece of news getting out that would typically be considered a bombshell if it had happened to a higher-profile performer. After spelling it out pretty clearly in one of the album’s songs, Tim came out as gay via a post on his blog. That made him a minority within a minority within a minority. Now I had to hear this one.
If you’ve read either of my Jennifer Knapp album reviews written since she came out in 2010, you’ll know that I have no problem with Christian rockers identifying as gay. I figure it’s about damn time we heard from more of them. But obviously a lot of folks within the Church do still have a problem with it, and it’s still a bold move for any artist whose audience is primarily Christians. Tim lived with the tension of not knowing when the right time was to come out for a good decade, before finally deciding after the remaining members departed from the band that this now posed no risk to anyone’s career other than his own. I think it was a good decision, personally. There’s only really one song on the album where he directly addresses this – and I’m sure it’ll be the one song that gets the lion’s share of conversations going for anyone who listens to it – but it’s worth noting that there are 12 other songs on here, most of which are on the subject of conflict between human beings, how they cause each other deep wounds, and how they can learn to forgive and hopefully reconcile with one another. No doubt a lot of those most recent conflicts in Tim’s life have had something to do with his decision to come out, but I think most of these songs are quite applicable to folks who have been through other kinds of conflicts, whether it’s a nasty breakup or a political argument that turned way too personal. We live in a time where, even among Christians who are supposed to see each other as brothers and sisters, mistrust and miscommunication have led to a ton of ugly infighting. So there’s a message throughout this album that I definitely wish could be heard by a wider audience.
Of course, the problem with having a good message and an independent budget to record an album (he went the Bandcamp route to release this one) is that you might not be able to accomplish the musical vision you had in mind for that message. Tim’s mostly piano-based pop style puts a lot of emphasis on his crooning, which can be victorious or vulnerable depending on the song. The downside is that the record seems to be filled out mostly by session players whose contributions are too polite to really match the rawness of some of what he must have been going through when he wrote these songs. Tim seems like a reasonably optimistic guy who wanted to let a silver lining show through even when sharing about the worst of his experiences, so I’m not saying I expect any of these tracks to be soul-crushingly dark or anything. But I can’t help but feel like, with a bigger budget, he could have held out for some players that would help him communicate the struggle with a little more grit, instead of just meekly staying out of the way of the vocalist. Sometimes I feel like I’m listening to an audition for one of those singing competition shows like The Voice when I listen to this one, and it bugs me. Not enough to make me dislike the album overall, but definitely enough to make me think it doesn’t quite live up to the potential of the message it’s trying to convey. Tim can fall victim to lyrical cliches when trying to express himself – it’s not too bad when compared with a good chunk of the “Christian music” genre these days, but he sometimes falls into a pattern of using clumsy analogies simply because the words rhyme. I keep hearing a version of this record in my mind that’s a little less polished and a little less afraid to let the human flaws and spontaneous moments show through in the recording. Still, this is pretty good stuff overall, and a few of these songs definitely pack a strong emotional wallop, even when slightly neutered by the modest production values. You can still listen to the whole thing (minus the final track, which appears to be an iTunes exclusive) for free via Bandcamp, so please do go check it out if anything I’ve written here makes you even mildly curious.
1. Go Down Singing
My criticism concerning the easygoing tone of the music on this album doesn’t really apply when the intended mood of a song is a happy one. While nobody steals the show on this opening track, I enjoy the buoyant drum beat, the fluid guitar licks, the hand claps, and the overall feeling of joyful release that characterizes it from beginning to end. Tim is singing words of comfort to someone who is going through absolute hell and who seems to have lost all of their friends but him, and he’s promising to be there by that person’s side to the bitter end, even if a defiant song like this is their only weapon against the darkness. His voice really takes flight here, which is no doubt what attracted the lion’s share of this band’s fans in the first place. I especially enjoy the build-up from the bridge back into the final chorus: “When your load increases/Fall into pieces/It’s alright, I will hold you until it ceases/No pain, no feeling/No hurt, no healing/If there are limits, then we will break that ceiling!” I’d have loved some sort of an instrumental solo or a vamp to really bring this one home, but still, it’s a song that gets me pretty pumped whenever I listen to it.
2. Friends and Foes
When an artist chooses a track to title their album after that is not only one of the strongest songs on it, but also a thematic centerpiece that most or all of the other songs seem to orbit around, that’s when I know they’ve put some thought into making sure their album is a meaningful experience as a whole, and not just a marketing opportunity for a few choice singles and some filler. This record’s title track more than fulfills that goal, describing an argument between two friends whose friendship may well be over due to the irreconcilable differences it’s unearthed. Tim highlights the tension between grace and justice here, noting that he’s not only been hurt by this person’s harsh judgment of him, but he’s also hurt that person by lashing out defensively, and he realizes this isn’t a helpful response from someone who just wants to be loved. I relate pretty strongly to this one, having been through some of those minefields in personal relationships where harsh things get said that can’t be unsaid, and I’ve watched close friends go through even worse in vulnerable moments with their family members and congregations. Of course, just because the subject matter hits home doesn’t automatically make a song great. This one seems to hit just the right balance between pretty and passionate, luring me in with an easygoing, syncopated rhythm and some strings to back up the usual pop/rock instrumentation, but then hitting me with a powerhouse chorus vocal that reminds me these aren’t just platitudes about some hypothetical situation. I get the sense when listening to this one that if there was a way for him to undo the process of friends becoming foes, and to never have to write this song in response to the pain he and this other person caused each other, Tim would probably choose that route in a heartbeat.
The mid-tempo, pop/R&B balladry of this song is a better indicator than the previous two songs of what most of this album will sound like. It’s a commendable performance, but any instruments present are really there to support the vocalist and the strong, sweeping melody he’s come up with, so those are the things most worth listening for. I’m willing to waive my criticism of the album overall being too “pretty” for this song, since it is a bit of an escapist fantasy by the artist’s own admission. We’ve all probably heard a million songs that seem to unfold like this one does, wishing for a romance that exists only in a dream world because in real life, either the person isn’t interested, or else you just can’t seem to meet someone who fits that image of a “soulmate” you’ve got in your mind’s eye. “Let’s fall in love even if it’s fiction” would seem like a harmless teenage fantasy, if not for the backdrop of Tim’s coming out that coincided with this record. Suddenly, that recasts the entire meaning of the song as something far more tragic, because it could be about the perils of falling in love with someone who isn’t of the same sexual orientation, or who perhaps is but has to keep it hidden due to an unwelcoming religious or cultural climate that they’re embedded in. The stakes are just higher in his case, and while the song is never specific about gender or any form of social commentary, awareness of the subtext turns it from playful and innocuous to downright heartbreaking.
4. Love Me Back
A gentle, finger-picked acoustic ballad like this is often the type of thing that makes me think twice about a boy-band type crooner that I’ve previously dismissed – just because they can pull off a stripped-down performance with all the production bells and whistles doesn’t mean I’m suddenly a huge fan, but at least I can appreciate that they’re adaptable to more of a down-to-earth setting. Tim’s entry in this genre reminds me of the cover of Geoff Moore‘s “Listen to Our Hearts” that he and his buddies found some viral success with a while back – it keeps the focus on the lyrics and the voice, and I’m happiest with that when there’s not much else going on that I feel like is meant to go unnoticed, if that makes any sense. Other than some backing vocals and little bits of church-y organ, there’s really nothing here but voice and guitar, and that’s fine because that’s all it needs. This one starts out as a simple tale of unrequited love, the kind of thing that, like the previous song, it’s tempting to think I’ve heard many times before. The person’s cavorting with someone else and generally rubbing it in his face that they’ll never be with him. The tone of the song starts to shift from innocent pining for someone who doesn’t know he exists, to being treated as a doormat by someone who knows him and who openly rejects and taunts him, and who never deserved his love in the first place. Tim’s falsetto near the end wraps it up nicely without giving way to the expected “bring back the whole band” type climax that can threaten the intimacy of a back-to-basics production such as this one. The restraint works in his favor.
5. I Forgive You
This time around we’re stripped down to just piano and strings, for a song that is clearly one of the cornerstone tracks on the album, yet that also feels a bit too soft-spoken and pristine to really hit the listener with the force that it probably should. Tim’s trying to get to the bottom of why someone he cared about very deeply suddenly turned on him, and his lyrics generally do a pretty good job of illustrating the night-and-day difference between the relationship he thought they had and the outright abuse he’s now suffering at their hands: “You aim and strike, you do whatever you like/And I’m left picking up the pieces/We once embraced, now you curse me to my face/And I’m patching up the dam before it breaches.” Right at that exact moment, when one of the heaviest lines of the song hits the listener, there’s this cutesy pause in the music, like the kind of thing you’d hear after an overtly witty or sentimental line in a Disney song. It’s just a little thing, but it underscores my overall feeling that a pretty performance can really distract from a tragic lyric. I also cringe a bit at the line “You threw my heart into a stack” early in the song, which seems like one of those things that only got written because it had to rhyme – the next line is “Gave me your love, then took it back”, and the second verse uses almost this exact same line while setting up with the much better “I wanted peace, but you attacked.” Also, near the end of the song, a toe-tapping beat comes in that is honestly quite distracting, completely betraying what seems to be the intended mood of the song. I have to separate out the music from the lyrics to really understand Tim’s pain on this one, and while nobody’s performance here is bad by any means, the dissonance between words and sounds is glaring at this point, and it’s not the kind of dissonance I’m used to from other artists where it feels deliberate and ironic.
6. I’m Sorry I Failed You
Tim brings in a duet partner, Jess Liao, for this song about patching up a relationship between two people who have wounded each other. This should be a big moment, a thematic turn that offers a different flavor from what we’ve heard on the record so far, but as much as I hate to say it, I think both performances here are rather middle-of-the-road, and the song never really seems to take flight as a result. The buoyant melodies and rhythmic cadences that kept me engaged on stronger songs just aren’t here, and I find myself struggling just to get through three and a half minutes of string-drenched, R&B-lite balladry. I like the idea of the song being a bit of a conversation where they both admit to their errors and patch things up in the end, but it really needs more interplay between them than just him taking the first verse, her taking the second, and both of them singing more or less the same part on the chorus, with modest ad-libbing near the end.
To start the back half of the record, Tim returns to the bouncy, soulful pop of “Go Down Singing”, this time with not-so-successful results. Overproduction might be partially to blame here – this song seems to want to have an aggressive edge to it, but the synths nearly bury the guitars and other instruments on the chorus, with the overall tone of it feeling more like an 80s sitcom theme tune than a defiant anthem about punching out the devil. Tim is pretty clearly confronting his demons here and asserting that they have no power over him, which is an admirable sentiment, but when the chorus lands its punchline, “I am a dark sky filled with your starlight”, it comes across as almost unforgivably cheesy. The album certainly needed something upbeat here to change up its mellow flow, so I’m not complaining about that; it’s just that the song really doesn’t succeed at putting me in the triumphant mood that it clearly wants to. I feel like this song needs to go one way and be a Gospel/funk rave-up, or go the other way and be unapologetic electropop. Doing both in such a non-committal way is really distracting.
8. Hearts to Stone
Here’s another ballad that might be a tad to fluffy for its own good. I feel like this one’s summing up a moral to the story that I pretty much already got from tracks 2, 4, and 5 – people motivated by pride and fear can very easily hurt the ones closest to them in their pursuit to be seen as right. Tim’s conviction of how life-draining these harsh words we say to one another can be is palpable, but the music lacks the passion needed to help communicate that. I do think it’s helpful how he tries to illustrate that underneath the cruel exterior of someone who harshly judges you for your beliefs or your behavior, there’s probably a lot of vulnerability and fear of having their own secrets found out. Good message, so-so song.
While it’s more lightweight in terms of the subject matter, this song stands out for breaking out of the 4/4 mold and having more of a sycnopated, galloping rhythm to it once it gets going. I like how it works its way up from a quiet piano ballad to something a little more cinematic in scope when the chorus rolls around. The lyrics communicate a pretty simple “You’ll never know if you don’t try” type of message – nothing all that profound, but coming from a man who spend a good decade of his life hiding a big part of himself from the general public, I can see how this song works well as the setup for the highly confessional song that follows it. If you’re going to exhort people to be brave and overcome their fears, it helps when you can demonstrate that you’ve already put your money where your mouth is, so to speak.
10. Lay Your Burdens Down
OK, deep breath. This is the big one – the song that got people talking. This is the song in which Tim came out to his audience when the album was released last Christmas (he later followed up with a blog post just to verify that yes, these were actually his own thoughts, and he wasn’t writing from someone else’s perspective). And, perhaps not surprisingly, I have a lot to say about it. First of all, I admire the bravery in doing this via a song that makes it clear from the get-go what sort of torment he was dealing with. Without these two lines in the first verse – “But then the preacher told me, God loves the straight man only/Straight is the same as holy, so saith the Lord” – the struggle could have been just about anything, left up to the listener to interpret. And usually I’m fine with that, but I’ve heard so many “vague struggle with sin or doubt” type songs in Christian music that I’m glad he decided to be specific with this one. This song was years in the making for Tim – he’s privately identified as gay for quite a while now, and was moved to write this song a few years ago, but he wasn’t ready to finish or release it until he arrived at a sense of peace about who he was. Having the question of whether God was OK with this still weighing on his mind would have made this a very different song, but in the third verse he has an epiphany of sorts, that not knowing how this all works out theologically shouldn’t be a barrier between him and a relationship with God. That leads to the conclusion that gives the song its title: “What is and isn’t sin/I’ll let it go and let you in/All this time I was praying/All this time you were saying/Come lay your burdens down on me.” And while some may wish for a bolder statement that conforms to their personal views on the issue – either it’s totally OK and we had just read the Bible wrong and yeah, go ahead and have relationships and marriages and all that stuff (this is basically where I’ve landed on the subject), or else one can acknowledge a gay identity but is still called to be celibate out of obedience to God (I know some gay Christians who feel this way), I think the point if this song isn’t to give a definitive answer to that difficult question, but to acknowledge that not having it figured out shouldn’t keep you outside of the fold or make you question even in the slightest whether God loves you. That’s the main thing Tim wants to convey here, and having finally come to that conclusion himself seems to have taken a massive weight off of his shoulders. It’s a message that we straight folks in the Church as well as our gay brothers and sisters absolutely need to hear, and the high grade I’m giving this song is heavily influenced by that. Stepping off my soapbox and putting my critic hat back on for a second, I have to admit that once again, lackluster production kind of drags it down. This song is so memorable for its message that the music, to me, is an afterthought. It’s a pretty basic, piano-based pop ballad construction, not particularly distinguishable from most of the rest of the album. I’d rather a song like this be noticed instead of blending in, and of course that will be true for anyone paying even passing attention to the lyrics, but I feel like it could have used something in the instrumental department to help it stand out more.
11. Faith and Time
Like “Maybe”, this song returns to much more general language as it talks about overcoming struggles. I can see how both songs were deliberately placed to bookend the revelation in “Lay Your Burdens Down”, especially since this one takes a tone of reassurance that a person being judged and criticized by others can overcome that negativity and be confident they’re doing the right thing by not hiding the person God created them to be. It’s the most religious that Tim’s language gets on the entire record – he and his band have deliberately turned down offers from Christian record labels due not wanting to have a Jesus-per-song quota to meet, but here it feels authentic when he invokes the J-word: “No more crying, no more shame/No more guilt and no more blame/No more anger in Jesus name/Amen.” While I appreciate the encouraging vibe of the song, once again I’m going to have to dock some points for the unimaginative, adult contemporary pop backdrop. It goes back and forth between a contemplative, ambient electronic vibe in the verse and a big pop anthem in the chorus, but it doesn’t quite have the finesse to pull either one off convincingly.
12. The Great Divide
The issue of “message supersedes music” that has been my primary critique of this album really comes to a head on the final track. It’s a bit more lively than the largely down-tempo back half of the album, with slight Gospel overtones and a strong air of camaraderie as Tim brings in several guest vocalists – Yolonda Jones, Jae Jin, and Calie Garrett – giving each a verse as they plead for unity in the midst of various issues that divide us – namely race, class, sexual orientation and identity. I don’t disagree with anything that’s being said here. But I often find that these “bring together every social justice topic we can think of” type songs, while well-intentioned, tend to barely scratch the surface when it comes to any of them, and they tend to get a positive response by those already fired up about any or all of those issues, while not really doing a whole lot to educate the rest of the audience. It’s one thing to say, “Yeah, we’re all equals”, and another thing to really delve into an issue the way a song like “Lay Your Burdens Down” does, that might actually illustrate for some of us who haven’t been the victim of discrimination in that area, how we could be inadvertently working against the kind of equality we say we’re striving for. So, I’ve got nothing against the feel-good vibe of this song, but I do feel like it’s a bit of a missed opportunity due to how it gives quick shout-outs to a few issues that were otherwise not discussed earlier in the album. Also, for an official “ending” to the record, it’s a bit short. When all the vocalists come together for the chorus, it feels like the chorus should stick around a bit longer, and become something that catches fire and leads to a bigger climax or a joyous fade-out as it repeats off into eternity. “Well, that’s where a nice, well-behaved three minute pop song should end, isn’t it?” is not the impression that I want to get from this kind of a song.
13. When Someone Loves You
I’m assuming this one’s a bonus track, since there’s no mention of it on Tim’s bandcamp site. It’s a brief, gentle piano ballad that makes very good use of its simple structure – one verse telling us all the things that love shouldn’t feel like, and one verse telling us what it should. it seems like a simple concept, but it was pretty clearly written from a perspective of watching someone go through an abusive or neglectful relationship and realizing how easy it us for us to trick ourselves into thinking the abuser actually loves us, or we deserve it, etc. It resonates with some of Tim’s stories of relationships that fell apart earlier in the album, and it works a lot better as an ending, since it seems like he knows what love really feels like now, and knows better than to make excuses for folks who don’t reuly have his best interest at heart.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Go Down Singing $1.50
Friends and Foes $2
Love Me Back $1.25
I Forgive You $.75
I’m Sorry I Failed You $.25
Hearts to Stone $.50
Lay Your Burdens Down $1.50
Faith and Time $.75
The Great Divide $.50
When Someone Loves You $1
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF: