Toad Returns – A Review of New Constellation


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.

Track Listing

New Constellation

California Wasted

The Moment

Rare Bird

I’ll Bet on You

Golden Age

Get What You Want

Is There Anyone Out There

Life is Beautiful

The Eye


Bonus Tracks

Friendly Fire

Last to Fall

I’m Not Waiting

Finally Fading

Toad the Wet Sprocket – My Setlist

In honor of the pending Toad the Wet Sprocket show at the Ponte Vedra Concert Hall along with the release of their new cd New Constellation I decided to consider what my perfect setlist would be if the band asked. Like any fan the easy answer would be “the entire catalog no matter how long it took” but in keeping with reality (because being asked to create a setlist qualifies as such) the number of songs will be consistent with their standard concert offering but not exact. In other words I had to add one more beyond the limit.

The way it worked out it is not too far off what they might be playing. While the obscure songs have an appeal the truth is their more popular songs have always played well live and there is something to be said of the crowd singing “Walk on the Ocean” and “All I Want” in unison. And as staples, you have to hear “Windmills” and “Fall Down”.

Fellow fans, share your thoughts.

1. New Constellation

2. Brother

3. Is it for Me?

4. I’ll Bet on You

5. I Think About

6. Rings

7. One Little Girl

8. Stupid

9. California Wasted

10. Get What You Want

11. Whatever I Fear

12. Windmills

13. Little Heaven

14. So Alive

15. All I Want

16. Crowing

17. Fall Down


18. The Moment

19. Enough

20. Humble/Know Me

21. Walk on the Ocean

22. Throw it All Away

Garbage Day

Over the past three days I attended two showings of a musical called Back in the Boondocks. It was put on by the CrossRoad UMC Arts Academy. The premise of the story is that of a family living in Louisiana. It details their struggles with relationships, alcoholism, friendship, death and faith. Musically the backdrop is solely Country with songs by the likes of Miranda Lambert (Kerosene), Joe Nichols (The Shape I’m In), The Band Perry (If I Die Young), Craig Morgan (Bonfire) and Little Big Town (Boondocks).

As someone who is not a big Country Music fan (yet I feel I am becoming a very selective one as each day passes), and a seasoned agnostic, the existential message disclosed by the production was something to which anyone could relate. For me it was summed up simply as this: we should not be looking for happiness, we should be looking for peace. This production was sharing how that could be found in Christianity and the crowds who I saw it with grasped that to thunderous applause. I saw the message as expanding beyond any one faith or belief system. Encountering, as well all surely have, individuals who do not hold the same life view as we and he who are at peace it serves not to remind us that we are necessarily wrong in our beliefs but that maybe we have gotten a bit off track.

There is one character who loses her farm after her brother signs it over to her seemingly ex-husband in good faith. Then there is that same brother who struggles with returning to Nashville in an effort to revive a successful singing career which he walked away from when his wife died in a tour bus accident. Amidst the messages of forgiveness and repentance I was more hit by the problem of attachment. Of holding on too tightly to something for fear of being without it. Such a crime assumes that beyond the now is not any better. How can we be so arrogant and naive?

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