Say what you want about Toad the Wet Sprocket, they certainly have support. The Santa Barbara band set a $50,000 goal on the crowdfunding website Kickstarter in order to record their sixth album New Constellation. That goal was met in less than 24 hours. Donations continued to roll in, giving the band an extra $200,000 cushion. That’s not bad for a band that hasn’t made an album together since 1997.
Toad the Wet Sprocket went their separate ways in 1998, leaving a high-charting but seldom-discussed swan song in their wake. My exposure to that album, Coil, was limited, but what I heard signaled that the band might be headed towards a rut. Singer/songwriter Glen Phillips and his pals pulled the cord just before the collective attention span of ‘90s listeners began to wander. Sure, “Walk on the Ocean”, “All I Want”, and “Fall Down” were all well and good, but the latter half of that decade soon became all about forgetting the first half. The days of me taking my brother’s copies of Pale and Dulcinea from his bedroom, because all I had was Fear, faded away as I lost myself in OK Computer and Sound of Lies. Oh, how fickle everyone was. Considering how many artists back then were ignored after one album, Toad the Wet Sprocket made out pretty well by the time their run ended (both Fear and Dulcinea went plantinum).
But sixteen years is a long time. A great deal has changed in the pop landscape, and the Toad the Wet Sprocket of 2013 sounds a lot like the Toad the Wet Sprocket of 1997. The album New Constellation pops up like an artifact from a time capsule, bearing all of the hallmarks of ‘90s pop/rock that you, for better or worse, forgot about. It’s got perfectly symmetrical songwriting, the earnestly positive choruses, polished production and arrangements, mumbly early-Stipe vocals, uptempo songs that aren’t fast, mid-tempo songs that aren’t ballads, and guitar solos that are just arbitrary notes going up and down the neck. Toad is not going into New Constellation completely cold. Glen Phillips kept a solo career chugging during the hiatus while the others busied themselves with various musical offshoots. The band did the occasional benefit gig and sometimes completed new recordings for some of their compilations. So New Constellations is by no stretch rusty. It’s so well-oiled that you may find yourself wishing for one of those odd stumbling block tracks to break the formula, like “Reincarnation Song” did for Dulcinea.
One trait that this kind of pop reveled in was vague lyrics. On the album’s title track, also the first single, our man is in some kind of spiritual crisis; “Hey, what’s that thing I can’t remember? / How did I get so far off center?” Not very content, is he? Well, by the time the choruses comes around, he “can fly through the heavens on the power of my heart / And thread my way through a string of stars”. What happened to being off center? Can you really fly like that when you feel out of balance? And what miracle cure did he encounter to make him feel that much better so quickly? “I’ll Bet On You” has plenty of predicates, but who are they directed towards and why?; “Hey yeah / Fire in the canyon / Take what you can / Barely time to get away”. And is “Get What You Want” anything positive? Because “And it’s so strange, it’s not like you thought it would be” doesn’t conceptually rhyme with “It’s a new day, you just where you want to be”.
Those who contributed to the funding of New Constellation received an early release with four extra songs. To the unabashed Toad fan, this is pretty generous. It gives you an extra fourteen minutes of music, one-third of an unheard Toad album! But in the overall scheme of things, these four songs neither add to nor subtract from the quality of New Constellation. They reinforce the same traits that you’ve gleaned from the main attraction; that Toad the Wet Sprocket are back and they’re currently doing what they always did. Nothing less, and certainly nothing more.