Peter Buck once called R.E.M. “the acceptable edge of the unacceptable stuff”, and if this is true, then Glen Phillips’s name-making ‘90s outfit Toad the Wet Sprocket was the unacceptable edge of the acceptable stuff. Their brand of jangly pop rock was polished enough to give them relative success with albums like Fear and Dulcinea, but just quirky and leftfield enough to make them “alternative” in marketing terms; and that, friends, is a haunted netherworld for musicians if ever there was one. Between the underground and the mainstream lies a land populated by ghosts of the underappreciated and misunderstood. But maybe, just maybe, that’s about to change.
After Toad’s denouement and dissolution, frontman Glen Phillips took some time away from performing and recording. Then he returned in 2001 with a solo debut, Abulum, for which he was warmly welcomed back by a music world that had forgotten what it’d been missing. His latest, Winter Pays for Summer, strikes me the same way, with a sense of comfort akin to seeing an old friend. Phillips’ instantly recognizable voice enters in first few bars of “Duck and Cover” like fresh air. When he sings, there’s no smugness, no ulterior motive, nothing between his voice and the message it carries; and that natural earnestness makes all the difference on Winter.
Reading the album’s lyric sheet can be an exercise in hand-wringing and a cynic’s studied eye-rolling. The sentiments expressed in songs like “True” and “Falling” are as plain and ultra-palatable as their titles, which is anathema to fans of bizarre and literary rock music, yours truly included. Couplets like “You’re so removed I can’t approach / With an attitude beyond reproach” are often of the icky, forced-rhyme variety, and the revelations don’t usually cut any deeper than “Cry when you die, cry when you’re born / In between it’s all about the ups and downs”. But within the context of the songs, delivered by Phillips, they flow so smooth and honest I feel like a jerk wishing for extravagance. As if to answer the question of aesthetics, “Simple” repeats the word like a mantra, held aloft by pedal steel and sunshower piano.
In the realm of straight-forward, radio-friendly light rock, Phillips is a gift. Which is not to say that the album is without faults. As refreshing as directness and earnestness can be, I could always do without the purple poetry. And a couple of the songs, particularly “Gather” and “Easier”, feature elastic acoustic guitar parts a la Dave Matthews, and are teeth-grindingly bad. Much better are the Sting-like, yearning “Cleareyed” and the elegant closer, “Don’t Need Anything”. It’s not necessary to pay attention to a single word to appreciate Phillips’ other strengths. The song structures, arrangements, and instrumental colors all communicate well enough to get the job done. “Falling” might start with “Oh, my enigma / I’ll never forgive ya”, but the chorus is mighty infectious enough to carry the song.
If Phillips is moving in a particular direction on the acceptable/unacceptable edge continuum, it’s clearly away from the peculiarities that marked his earlier work with Toad. Not quite as rootsy as Lost Highway stablemates Ryan Adams, Lucinda Williams, and the Jayhawks, he’s nonetheless just as trustworthy for sturdy, passionate song-craft. To pun horribly, I guess you could say he’s moved himself to the middle of the Highway. But if middle of the road has too many negative connotations, scratch that. Forget all about it. Just know that when you grow tired of the margins, Winter Pays for Summer will take good care of you.