Wade Picks the Top CDs (continued)
Toad the Wet Sprocket, Fear
Toad does an excellent job in mixing songs with haunting melodies alongside acoustic up-tempo numbers on this 1991 release, their third album. Fear represents Toad's transition from the ethereal, sometime bleary songs found on 1990's Pale to more audience-pleasing, critically-acclaimed songs on later albums ("Fall Down" and "Something's Always Wrong" on 1994's Dulcinea, "Come Down" on 1997's Foil.) Fear is mostly acoustically-driven as well, showing a more simplistic sound than what is usually found on its more electric followers.
The disc begins with one of its two commercial successes, "Walk On The Ocean." Driven by minor chords and guitarist Todd Nichols' accordion, singer Glen Phillips weaves a web of despair about leaving home. Near the end, "All I Want" is found, a top twenty hit that was nearly left off the album. ?Nightingale Song? and "Pray Your Gods" are entirely acoustic, while "In My Ear" throws in a jangly lead a la early Peter Buck; all represent what is best about Toad-- introspective lyrics, harmonies, and a genuine sound. Toad makes the best music "folk-pop" has to offer.
Although the whole CD is dominated by a folksy sound, there are points when the amps do get cranked to eleven. "Before You Were Born" combines a chant-like chorus with a bit of blistering guitar during the verse. "Hold Her Down" features questionable lyrics (wish I knew the real story about this one) but great melodies, and "Stories I Tell" turns into a screaming anthem by the end of the track.
Phillips, while not the lyrical artist that Adam Duritz has developed into, but he exudes flashes of brilliance on this disc, especially in "Before You Were Born": But pain is the healing / And the tears taste like alcohol / Just keep on breathing / We'll help you down the long, long road back home. Fear is clearly the star in the Toad library. One thing that this group did well was a bit of reinvention (not to the degree of REM, but there are noticeable differences between their albums) so that, if Fear isn't your bag, check out the more raucous Dulcinea. If you're feeling more reflective, pop in Pale. No matter what, you'll be satisfied by the boys in Toad.
Better Than Ezra, Friction Baby
Yes, kids, BTE is about as funky as I get. Friction, Baby was released by BTE in 1996, the second album in their portfolio (after 1995's Deluxe.) While no song on this album captured the airplay success of Deluxe's "Good", Friction is a more cohesive effort with stronger music and lyrics from the group. BTE's subsequent albums, How Does Your Garden Grow (1999) and Closer (2001) are well worth listening too; however, Friction easily rises to the top as it best combines the group's rock influences with their more experimental side.
The disc starts out with a bang, with the radio-friendly "King of New Orleans." This song is a microcosm of what I like best about BTE-- distorted but not screeching guitars, driving bass lines, vocal harmonies, and a willing to break out of the standard shell of rock songs. "Rewind" features addicting riffs with poignant lyrics comparing the end of a relationship to a mixed tape. Sounds corny, but lead singer Kevin Griffin pulls it off nicely. "WWOZ" is a more toned-down song with a simple riff driving the verse and a keyboard-aided melodic chorus that you can?t help singing along to.
My favorite song on this disc is "Return of the Post Moderns." It's short (shy of three minutes) but represents the group-- explosive, distorted, the kind of sounds that get your head bobbing without even trying. Clever lyrics, although they're more kitschy than thoughtful. A thick bass line. Although BTE is only a three-piece, their sound is well-enhanced by strong production. Vocal distortion, keyboards, alternate percussion are all interspersed so well that you rarely realize they were added after-the-fact. "Desperately Wanting" is also featured on this CD, another happy tune that got some radio recognition as well.
Again, this band's growth can be charted as you move from release to release; from the raw sound of Deluxe to the heavily studio-enhanced songs on Closer (they mix a DJ in on several, which works well)-- they've covered many bases. In each case, Better Than Ezra has produced music that's fun to listen to, actively or passively.
The Refreshments, Fizzy, Fuzzy, Big and Buzzy
Although it's true that this list was compiled in no particular order, I did save the best for last. The Refreshments (now Roger Clyne and the Peacemakers) are easily my favorite bands. Their music, energy, style are second to none in my opinion; they're amazing live, as well, which probably lends to their greatness in my mind. Although all of their albums are great, Fizzy, Fuzzy is my personal favorite because of its rawness-- it sounds like a bunch of guys got together to play some songs, without caring about what a record label would want.
You've heard The Refreshments, more than likely, even if you think you haven't. You ever seen King of the Hill? You know, Hank Hill-- propane and propane accessories? Boomhauer and the like? The Refreshments recorded the theme to that show. Although that's a less than exemplary taste-- you don?t even get to hear lead singer Clyne. All four musicians in the band are nearly equal in skill and execution (although Clyne's heartfelt vocals and guitarist Brian Blush's blistering solos generally set the tone) which makes the album very solid from start to finish.
"Blue Collar Suicide" and "European Swallow" set the tone nicely for the disc, featuring Clyne's catchy lyrics and Blush's lead tremelos. "Down Together" received a bit of fanfare on local radio, and rightfully so: it's easily their most radio-friendly single. The best track on the disc, though, is tucked thoughtfully behind it: "Mekong," which is a type of Mexican whiskey. A song Clyne wrote while in Taiwan, "Mekong" is driven by a complex but solid bass line, with Blush's ever-present tremolo riffs. The chorus is what really makes the song; the tempo, harmonies-- maybe you need to see it in concert to appreciate it, but the song gives me goosebumps whenever I hear it.
"Girly," "Banditos," and "Mexico" present a powerful trio of songs that highlight the strengths of the band again: "Mexico," in particular, shows more of the bands southwestern flavor by adding trumpets. It sounds great, from a self-professed horn-hater. There's also the simple "Suckerpunch," whose guitar solo I haven't been able to shake from my head since 1997. The album concludes with "Nada," an epic of a song with the powerful distorted guitar riff, and, by the end, Clyne screams out the lyrics.
These guys are my favorites by far, and Fizzy, Fuzzy edges out the rest of their work, including the latest from the Peacemakers, Sonoran Hope and Madness. By 2002 Clyne has grown up as a lyricist (lines about racism and the environment replace those about Jean Luc Picard) and the music has matured greatly as well (although the loss of Blush in the Refreshments breakup of '98 leads to less scorching guitar.) And while the new music is great to listen to (including the '99 release of Honky Tonk Union,) the energy of Fizzy, Fuzzy seems to be left back on that disc. I will tell you, though, that this is the greatest band I've ever seen live and encourage you to stop by to see them if you get the chance.