You should know up front I am a huge fan of Toad the Wet Sprocket. Years ago our old classic rock station down here in Jacksonville, Rock 105, carved out a few hours on Sunday night to showcase new bands in this budding genre called Alternative Music. Robert Goodman was the host and on a special evening he kicked off with this unknown band from Santa Barbara, CA singing “Way Away” from their debut CD Bread and Circus. Being a fan of Michael Stipe’s vocal delivery for R.E.M., hearing Glen Phillips leverage a melancholy delivery for the lyric “Line of people to pass you by, Posing sympathy with its whitewash eyes, With the ladies feigning their mourning cries, And the men shaking hands” it was love at first…listen.
When a fan reviews an artist’s work, the reader, by definition, must consider whether that fan can be critical enough to say the work is not good. Years ago when I reviewed The Connells Weird Food and Devastation my objectivity was challenged and the reality that the disc simply failed to deliver was hard to write. With the release of “New Constellation” early to those who donated to Toad’s Kickstarter campaign I immediately downloaded it to all devices I owned so that there would be nowhere the songs could not be played.
Mowing the yard: check.
A trip to Orlando: check.
At work: check.
In the bathroom: check.
The progression of Toad’s catalogue is an interesting one. Both Bread and Circus and Pale (their second release) captured a more solemn sound and gave the listener the above noted lyric, which detailed a funeral, along with Pale’s beautiful but dark “Corporal Brown” and the barely optimistic “High on a Riverbed”. Fear brought them their first commercial success with “Walk on the Ocean” and “All I Want”, while still venturing into deeper subject matter like rape in “Hold Her Down” or faith in “Pray Your Gods”. The musical direction also began a shift to more upbeat melodies along with a more rock delivery. Dulcinea continued to show a maturing sound with the popular “Fly From Heaven” and “Fall Down” along with the comical “Nanci” and “Stupid”, the latter being lyrical content that glowed on the far too under-appreciated In Light Syrup, a collection of B-sides.
Coil showcased the band maturing even further. They had the radio friendly sound from “Come Down” and “Crazy Life but they also delivered the beautiful “Throw it All Away” (as poignant as Fear’s “I Will Not Take These Things for Granted”) and poetic “Rings”. Whether this is an after-the-fact evaluation but it seems there was a wedge being driven between the desire to pursue a more folk and rock sound.
To look at things as glass-half-full it must be noted that the breakup afforded us Glenn’s work in WPA along with some great solo releases, a specific mention being Winter Pays for Summer. Yet there was still a hole left needing to be filled and only Glen, Dean Dinning, Todd Nichols and Randy Guss carried big enough shovels.
I believe Glen’s work as a singer song writer helped form the basis of New Constellation but working with his old friends solidly stamped it with the Toad signature. The first single, which bears the CDs name, kicks things off and eases you in with familiar harmonies and arrangements. It bounces joyfully, leveraging the stellar imagery of writing one’s love “for all creation” in the stars. “California Wasted” starts with a country sounding guitar which sets the perfect mood for a story of struggling to sort things out while realizing the wasted beauty all around.
And thankfully that is one thing that has not been lost after all these years: the ability to tell a story through lyric while the music sets the proper mood. Three of the strongest examples of this are “The Moment”, “Enough” and “Life is Beautiful”. The latter is sung by Todd and being a huge fan of “Inside” it was a prayer answered to hear Todd’s pipes. With a haunting, but simple, guitar it is easy to see how this might be the first song you hear after being released from the worst event of your life. In turn, “The Moment” is defiant, demanding that we not waste our time on regret while “Enough” slams down its fist declaring I can take no more. Both additionally showing that Toad can still deliver their brand of uptempo rock.
“Get What You Want” and “I’ll Bet on You” may be the two songs you find the hardest to get out of your head. On the former Randy lays down a hypnotic drum beat while the boys layer their vocals sweetly noting “You got what you wanted, you forgot what you need”. The latter, another with a country feel, might find you on your front porch watching the sunset as a teenager, mulling over your failures while your parents remind you “We’ve all been hurt, It’s nothing new, Just bet on me, ‘Cause I’ll bet on you.”
It is interesting to see where the band left off with Coil and where they picked up with New Constellation. Maturity can be a very subjective term and one could argue that after so long together there is a Zen like quality to the new music. As Glen noted in a recent interview when asked about making the new album:
Frankly, I started to freak out a little. I was probably the last holdout as to whether we could do this or not. I didn’t know if I could handle it. I think I had a big chip on my shoulder. I didn’t want anyone to think I was going back to Toad because my career hadn’t panned out, and I was so afraid of that that I was very reluctant to do it.
Finally, I convinced myself that I couldn’t waste time caring about that. We were getting along and everybody was really into it. So I figured I should worry more about what I wanted and what everybody wanted. I needed to get over myself. So I decided I wouldn’t care about what everybody thought or what they assumed the motivations were and decided instead that everybody was getting along to the point where we could make a record like a real band, and not just be hurried into making some heartless product. I hope the album is proof of that.
We could have just regurgitated something that sounded enough like us to get by. But we wanted to do something that was at least as good as what we did before, and hopefully this record does that.
From beginning to end it is hard not to feel like care was taken in writing the songs and selecting the best of the bunch. The production is not overdone which seems to be where these guys are and because of this the song writing takes center stage, as it should with Toad. Their life experiences have afforded them a perspective of gratitude and optimism which shines through in what they have created, leaving the listener in a better place than they were. Feel free to question my objectivity but New Constellation is exactly what Toad fans wanted and needed, and the band should not be surprised if they gather some new fans along the way.
I’ll Bet on You
Get What You Want
Is There Anyone Out There
Life is Beautiful
Last to Fall
I’m Not Waiting