There was always more to Toad the Wet Sprocket than their MOR, R.E.M.-lite reputation, and a lot of that was due to their passionate, gifted singer/primary songwriter, Glen Phillips. In the decade or so since Toad broke up, he’s struggled a bit to establish his own musical identity without turning his back on his old band or its fans, who now constitute most of his following.
Over the course of a few solo albums and Mutual Admiration Society, a collaboration with alt-bluegrass sensations Nickel Creek, he’s settled into the coffeehouse singer/songwriter circuit, though his songs (and aspirations) always seemed bigger than that. Mr. Lemons, his first self-released record and third solo studio effort, finds him sounding more comfortable in these more intimate digs. It also happens to coincide with one of Toad’s occasional summer reunion tours, which may not be as ironic as it seems. More on that later.
Produced by eclectic singer/songwriter Neilson Hubbard, Mr. Lemons is split pretty evenly between laidback midtempo pop/rock and folksy acoustic ballads. It’s all very easygoing and natural sounding and mature—the result of live-in-the-studio recording. As with last year’s Winter Pays for Summer, Phillips has left his whimsy and wit to between-song banter at his live shows; consequently, there aren’t any songs about offing the neighbor’s dog or Fred Meyer. The only real breath of fresh air amid all the pondering and seriousness is a stunt cover of Huey Lewis’ “I Want a New Drug”. It’s a woozy, jazzy, lounge version that’s playful enough but out of character with the rest of the album. You just get the feeling that it’s Phillips’ shot at Triple-A airplay. The other anomaly is “Thank You”. It’s possibly the most spiritual song ever written by someone who insists he’s not a creationist, but musically it’s a vaguely Eastern misstep.
In mistrusting his instinct to stick with what he does best, Phillips might be selling himself short, because the best songs on Mr. Lemons are Wilco good, without the experimentalism. Largely, it’s the midtempo ones that do the trick. The airy, gently-rolling “Everything But You” gets the album started with a melody that won’t let go and some warm backing vocals courtesy of Kim Richey. You just wish that Phillips was capable of such confident directness more consistently. He does manage it with the Jackson Browne-like “I Still Love You” and “Waiting”, a wonderful country-rock tune with a buoyant bassline, banjo plucking, lap steel, and one of those signature, sing-song Phillips choruses that sounds like it wrote itself. Of the ballads, “Blind Sight” is gorgeous, but too many blur into one another without choruses and melodies to hold them up.
What does keep it all together is Phillips’ greatest, and most overlooked, asset: his voice. He doesn’t oversing; he rarely over-emotes. The best way to put it is that he genuinely sounds like he’s your friend, delivering each line as if it’s an epiphany that’s just occurred to him. At times his phrasing and timbre recall a less-mannered Neil Diamond. Anyhow, that voice alone makes most everything on Mr. Lemons pleasant to listen to.
Yes, the best of Mr. Lemons could be described as “Toad-esque.” Maybe Phillips is able to indulge his bigger aspirations by doing the old hits with his old band, letting his solo work serve as an understated complement. In any case, Mr. Lemons has a few songs that stick in your head, and several that you can’t remember even after repeated listening. You can’t help but feel that, eventually, Phillips is going to shift the balance in the right direction.
Glen Phillips - Everything But You