Think back to 1995 and ask yourself: Did you ever think the Toadies
would make it out of the alt-rock avalanche alive?
The safe money, at least then, was on “no.” Tucked away somewhere in the oversized grab bag of alternative acts that dominated the mid-’90s musical zeitgeist, the Dallas/Fort Worth alt-rock foursome, barring a leftfield hit, seemed destined to fade into buzz bin obscurity. That isn’t to say that they were bad, but with so many similar sounding acts nipping at each others’ heels during that guitar rock heyday, it was almost impossible to guess which (if any) of them would live long enough to see the new millennium. Hindsight is 20/20, but for a brief moment, the Flaming Lips were actually on level footing with Geggy Tah.
But, 17 years later, The Toadies are back with a new album, cementing their status as one of the alternative rock boom’s most unlikely success stories. “Possum Kingdom” has climbed the ladder over the years from cheeky novelty hit to almost generational anthem, and while the band has yet to duplicate that kind of success, they’ve managed to keep a solid fan base over the course of four subsequent albums. It’s hardly been easy, but after breaking up following the release of 2001’s criminally underrated Hell Below, Stars Above and reforming in 2008, the band is in fine form four years into a generous second wind.
All the evidence you need is pasted all over Play. Rock. Music., a record with a sound as blunt and deliberate as its title suggests. The same crunchy guitars and well-defined drums that punched up records like Rubberneck and Hell Below are utilized to full effect, making for 11 tracks that lock in with what has now become the band’s trademarked hard-driving alt-rock sound.
But the twist that has helped the band break subtly from their peers is– and always has been– the dark undertones pinning the songs down to the floor. The Toadies have never occupied the same happy-go-lucky spaces reserved for Toad The Wet Sprocket, but the darkness continues to suit the band’s scuzzy, blues-infused take on the alternative genre. Frontman Todd Lewis’ grim vocals take front and center on album opener “Rattler’s Revivial” (“Sometimes I wish I had the heart of a snake/ With no compassion comes no mistakes”), while equally grungy minor chord romp “Get Low” fits within the band’s seedy sonic repertoire.
Elsewhere, “Animals” plays like a bluesy, drinking ballad from hell, all beer-soaked swagger and boisterousness, complemented by Lewis’ celebration of man’s dark primal urges (“Tonight we’re just two animals”). Keeping with the bar band feel, “We Burned The City Down” builds into a generous slice of slide guitar madness following an intro vaguely reminiscent of U2′s “Desire”. It’s the stuff of vintage Toadies: twisted and warped, but still a lot of rambunctious fun, and it’s a small wonder that the formula still feels fresh after so many years.
Little deviates from the band’s musical playbook on Play.Rock.Music.; with such well-crafted tracks, there’s not much need to mix things up. But when the band does take the foot off the gas ever so slightly, it uncoils a slightly softer yet no less quirky side of the band. At over six minutes long, “The Appeal” slows things down to a somber, twilight twang, even allowing some sentiment to creep into the album (“I wish I could tell you just how I feel/ I know that I’ve failed you, so I make my appeal”).
The highest compliment that can be paid to Play. Rock. Music. is that it’s a Toadies record, and a good one at that. That might sound like dodgy praise, but they’re more than 20 years into what has been an up and down rollercoaster of a career. The fact that they haven’t strayed from their sound or identity speaks well of a band who, good or bad, commits to a consistent sense of self. By continuing to stand by their own turgid blend of grunge, blues, and ballsy cock-rock bravado, the Toadies have weathered the storm of breakups and major label double-crosses to find themselves cemented in the ground. The band might have taken the long, thorny road to success, but they found their way regardless.
Essential Tracks: “Rattle’s Revival”, “Get Low”, and “Animals”