[24 October 2012]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
If you were around and musically savvy during the mid-‘90s, you might have had an experience such as mine when it came to the alt-rock sounds of the Texan group Toadies. I saw their album Rubberneck in music stores, thought about picking it up based on a little bit of press I’d read, but didn’t. I never heard them on the radio. I distinctly recall catching the last 10 or 15 seconds of their hit “Possum Kingdom” on MTV or MuchMusic or some such video outlet at one point – and then I never saw the video or heard any mention of it ever again. Essentially, Toadies were a band that seemed to be on the fringes of a movement: somewhat seen, but never actually really heard. Perhaps that’s a commentary on how many groups of their ilk were trying to command a world’s attention in the year following Kurt Cobain’s suicide, and maybe even speaks to the faltering and fractured nature of the tribe of Alternative Nation by late 1994 or 1995. Everything was falling apart, gradually, and Toadies managed to come in on the coattails of the movement, and were, more or less (from my perspective), shoved to the side as people prepared themselves for the coming of, well, Limp Bizkit.
Well, all movements eventually come roaring back to life, and so comes the release of Toadies’ fifth album, the John Green-baiting Play. Rock. Music. (John Green being a young adult novelist who happens to like using. Short. One. Word. Sentences. At least, from my vantage point, having read a couple of his books). With the reissuing of classic albums by the likes of Nirvana, Sugar and the Smashing Pumpkins during the past year or so, perhaps there’s an argument that were on the verge of a grunge revival, which Toadies would be well positioned to capitalize on. See, Play. Rock. Music., aside from one trainwreck of a track that I’ll get to momentarily, is a heck of an anthemic album, right from the get-go. Opener “Rattler’s Revival” even starts out with one of the most captivating opening lines of any song, ever, with “Sometimes I wish / I had the heart of a snake / With no compassion / Comes no mistakes”. Who hasn’t ever felt that, but failed to articulate that in the flotsam and jetsam of their own lives? True, by the time we get to “Animals”, things get rather close to Trent Reznor with the chorus “Tonight we’re just two animals”, but Toadies manage to uncoil so much goodwill with their opening salvo that I practically can ignore that.
Essentially, these mainly minor-key anthems, with their soft verses and exceptionally loud choruses, were made to be played as though the world hadn’t turned since 1994. Play. Rock. Music. is almost a time capsule in that respect – if you like what you heard back in the day, you’re bound to like this pretty much, save for one obnoxious song in which I’ll get to writing about in a moment or two. (Patience, grasshopper. We’re getting there.) Second song “Get Low” manages to conjure up the whole grunge aesthetic of ennui, simmering along on an addictive Pixies-meets-Cheap Trick vibe. By the time singer Todd Lewis is extolling us to “give me back control” in “Summer of the Strange”, we’re more than along for the ride – our ears are glued to the speakers, and our hands are riding the volume knobs, inching it forward and forward in incremental bursts. If there was a song or songs worth playing at a level where there’d be ringing in your ears, any of the first three that open the record will do the trick. That’s not to say that there aren’t contenders elsewhere, here, though. “Magic Bullet” has one heck of a minor key change in the guitar riff during the bridge, and “Animals” is the sort of thing that could soundtrack a Monster Truck event.
However, not all is beautiful (or, perhaps that should read grimy?) in Toadies land. For some oddball reason, the group has chosen to include the song “Laments of a Good Man”, which is a call and response song where the song is overtly cheesy with processed computerized effects on the vocals. And then the song crawls to a halt during the chorus, resembling the sludgiest of sludge rock – Soundgarden at a snails’ pace perhaps. Now, granted, the song is such a car accident that you really can’t help but look at it (if you can, indeed, actually look at a ditty) and you won’t be able to turn away. But it’s such an oddball choice for the record, you have to wonder what it is doing here at all. If there was a candidate for the Worst. Song. Of. 2012, “Laments of a Good Man” would stand the shot of walking away with all the trophies and relative hardware. It’s strange: the album is 11 tracks long, so culling one wouldn’t have that much of an effect on things. But maybe the band was just trying to be goofy to leaven the mood. Whatever. It’s still a terrible song.
Therefore, Play. Rock. Music. turns out to be a very good alterna rock album. It could have been a great one if the band had exercised a bit more restraint when it came to song selection, but what we have here is still pretty invigorating. And, in this digital age, I suppose that you can just rip yourself a CD that removes the offensive song. Or download a version without “Laments of a Good Man” on it. Do it, and you have an excellent album. Don’t, and you’ll kind of be scratching your head at the buzzkill offered here. Still, Play. Rock. Music. is a worthwhile attempt to reclaim whatever little shred of glory the band had during their halcyon days, if you can call such days that. The album is just such a mostly great distillation of a particular genre of music that you would be forgiven for thinking that the years were a little different. Had this record come out nearly 20 years ago, it would have probably more than commandingly hold its own in the post-grunge marketplace. Which is about as good as a recommendation that an also-ran group like Toadies can probably expect in the current environment. Still, whatever its failings, Play. Rock. Music. deserves one thing. To be played. And. To. Be. Listened. To. That alone, is Worth. Talking. About.