At Full Extension
It’s been nearly twenty years since flannel-clad, Texas foursome Toadies banged out their 1994 hit, “Possum Kingdom.” Off their debut record, Rubberneck, the sinister grunge number was lapped up amid a season of Cobains, Corgans and Cornells, enjoying heavy rotation in its day. What soon followed for the group was an all-too-familiar tale of industry heartbreak: label Interscope Records unexpectedly shelved their ’97 follow-up Feeler, effectively scrubbing an album’s worth of material and sending guitarist/vocalist Todd Lewis and company on a disenchanted hiatus. Now with a break-up, reunion and label change behind them, Toadies have released their fifth studio album, Play.Rock.Music, a steady set of tracks hearkening all the way back to Rubberneck.
Toggling between his well-worn tenor and a ditsy spoken-word delivery, Lewis seems to enjoy being grunge’s Jekyll and Hyde. Or maybe Hyde and Hyder? In opening number “Rattles Revival,” he barks through a macho monologue with a snake-hander’s fervor amidst a lean grit-your-teeth boogie, while in the off-beat “Summer of Strange,” Lewis reprises his more traditional delivery over a pouncing, staccato rocker. He even flicks on a Chris Cornell-style rasp in “Magic Bullet,” perhaps vestigial from the band’s hard-charging days of Hell Below/Stars Above.
But Play.Rock.Music is not so much take-no-prisoners as it is whacked-out. “Laments of a Good Man” is outright comical, bouncing like a DUI Easter Bunny and employing a call-and-response reminiscent of Green Jelly’s classic, “Three Little Pigs”—whereas “Epic Castles” apes around with a twangy, Primus-affected itchiness. Lyrics often take a narrative form, exploring strange vignettes featuring an ensemble cast of Joe and Jane Six-packs, losers and loner romantics.
The stalker menace of “Possum Kingdom” is revisited in “Beside You,” a tale from the perspective of an obsessive who assures his fey target, “I’ll always be closer than you know.” The song’s tidy construction and quiet-to-loud roar would put a smile on any Gen-Xers face. Still, other songs like “Sunshine” and “Get Low” seem a little warmed-over. All told, Toadies’ fifth batch has a cookie for every palate: fun-house hip shakers, black-fingernail grunge and even an affecting R&B closer in “The Appeal.” The variety is so vast as to suggest more than one chef in the kitchen—or maybe a single cook on conflicting medications. Regardless, the disparities threaten to pull the album apart, yet the membrane never fully gives way—ending instead at a sustained hyper-extension perhaps only Toadies could achieve.