The Stars Aligned
“Now what’s that thing I can’t remember?” Glen Phillips sings in the first line of the first song of Toad the Wet Sprocket’s first album of new music in sixteen years. Perhaps that thing he can’t remember, fortunately, is the rifts that terminated the relationship between him and the other three members of one of the most successful alt-rock bands of the ’90s. In an age where every band from that era is releasing new music, including several with way more “hip” cred than Toad, the news of this reunion flew under the radar, but that’s where Toad has always existed. You don’t think you like them, and you want to write them off as “frat-rock,” but you wind up being surprised at how many of their songs you know and like. “All I Want,” “Good Intentions,” “Something’s Always Wrong” — all are undeniable and enduring hits. New Constellation, a fan-sourced album with fourteen new tracks of alterna-pop goodness, picks up right where the band left off.
The album begins with the title track, and it’s like Phillips’ and Todd Nichols’s guitar amps were set to the patented treble level and Randy Guss’s snare drum was set to the exact snap and reverb used from 1989 to 1997. It’s poppy. It’s simple. It’s tight. But damn, is it catchy. The next track, “California Wasted,” is one of the best singles of 2013, featuring not only a great hook but one of the cleverest perspectives ever put to tape as Phillips laments that he “Still makes the same mistakes / California’s wasted on me.” “The Moment” is Toad at its best, rich in harmony and emotion.
Following these three gems, New Constellation veers off in different directions. “Rare Bird” shows Phillips’s melodic range and reveals that he has developed a nice falsetto. “Golden Age” is a lovely ballad, and for the first time Phillips sounds mature, like Paul Simon in his heyday. “Get What You Want” feels unusual at first with Phillips again hitting a new register, but upon repeat listens it fits in.
In between 1997’s Coil and this new one, Phillips released three full-length albums, a couple EPs and a few side projects with members of Nickel Creek and others. In that time, he earned recognition as one of the most talented songwriters in the last twenty years, effectively validating Toad’s entire catalog. On the surface, and to casual ears, their songs may seem safe and overly accessible, but on closer inspection, they are rich in melody and harmony, and the lyrics reveal a level of intelligence and awareness that is unmatched by other artists in the genre and the era. New Constellation is no exception, and in time it will be regarded less as a “comeback” or “reunion” album and more as an excellent addition to an already strong catalog.