Toy, A Giant Dog’s second album after signing with Merge Records, proves that the Austin group can do more than just play around. With songs that will make you wanna dance, then cry, then maybe take over the world, the album is a tour-de-fun that evokes classics of the ‘70s while also staying in dialogue with pop, punk, and rock groups today.
Though the group has been together since 2008, Toy is only their fourth record release since 2012. The band has hopped between different labels, self-releasing their debut, Fight, then putting out 2013’s Bone with Tic Tac Totally Records, and finally signing with Merge in 2016 with their release of Pile. Because of their inventive and unique point of view, merging with Merge, a relatively larger label, could be seen as a problem. However, A Giant Dog has only flourished, building onto their already stellar discography, just with a more cleaned-up sound. This couldn’t be more clear in Toy. Recorded with the help of Grammy-winning engineer Stuart Sikes, the man who’s responsible for the sounds of the White Stripes, Cat Power, and a laundry list of even more impressive musicians, lead singer, and vocalist Andrew Cashen ultimately produced the record. That shows an enormous amount of trust between Merge and A Giant Dog, and the collaboration between Sikes and Cashen truly pays off — turning out an album that sounds mature while still maintaining a gritty, almost DIY edge.
Known for their inventive hooks, heart-racing rhythm section, and offbeat lyrics, A Giant Dog doesn’t disappoint with Toy. In fact, lead singer Sabrina Ellis transcends all expectations for this venture, with vocals that provide an emotional backbone for the album’s body. From the Blondie-esque high notes of “Bendover” to the sultry to the stripped-down sounds of “Angst in My Pants” and every track in-between, her voice proves versatile throughout.
Genre-wise, A Giant Dog plays chameleon. Opening track “Get Away” evokes beachy vibes, while “Angst in My Pants” mixes it up with a disco-like intro, and “Making Moves”, with its country undertones, flips the coin again. Even so, the album never sounds confused. Toy proves easy to listen to and difficult to turn off. Though technically short — each of the 13 tracks clocks in at less than four minutes — every song is a veritable sonic journey within its own right, hardly ever beginning and ending in the same place.
A prime example of this kind of transformative musicality comes midway through the album with track “Lucky Ponderosa”. The song, an ode to hatred for hometown and the yearning to make a name for one’s self, could prove anthemic to anyone who has ever had the urge to break out of the familiar to find fame. The song starts with jarring drums that run-off into a groovy base line. Ellis and Cashen join together in dissonant harmony, offering a look into the mindset that the Austin natives may have embodied a few years before, singing, “I’m moving to California / I’m gonna make myself a name / We’ve got two fists full of money / Make it rain.” Things quiet down mid-way through when the group peppers in some tasteful strings before making room for an artful guitar solo. The track races to the end, but not without giving Ellis the opportunity to showcase some of the best vocals on the album with one final refrain of the chorus.
When listening, it’s easy to get so caught up in toe-tapping as to forget to listen to the words — which is a shame, because the group doesn’t hold back lyrically. With the unique ability to be both serious and silly, Ellis and Cashen bare their souls. “Fake Plastic Trees” perfectly embodies what it means to have a lot to do and no way to do it all, as Sabrina quips, “I never had a car to drive / But I got shit to do today. / Can someone please give me a ride? / It’s on the way.” “Photograph” embodies the love that must come with a long-term relationship, quipping, “I wanna see you with your saggy tits / I wanna see you when your jeans are split.” The band showcases an uncanny ability to be intensely specific while also proving extremely relatable to the ragtag, disheveled punks that make up their target audience.
For any other album from any other group, I would lament that the record often sacrifices fun for focus. I would have to add a footnote here about how the inventiveness and constant state of flux are musically intriguing but don’t provide much space to prove a point, provide a thesis, or get to the heart of any issue. However, A Giant Dog conquers the seemingly impossible task of being emotional while remaining enjoyable.
Songs like closer “Survive” tether Toy to reality. Opening with quiet guitar, Ellis sings in a low voice with brutal honesty, “I’m such a piece of shit / I wanna kill myself / I wanna kill myself / But darling if I did / You’d have nobody else.” The song continues softly, until Ellis advises, “There comes a time in every life / You must survive.” Here, the drums kick in, the music swells, and Ellis does some of her best vocal work of the whole album — belting, her vocals reach so high, they almost hit the heavens. This is A Giant Dog at its best: technically interesting, emotionally resonant, and ultimately hopeful.