Ginger’s Secret History Of Rock’n’Roll (Pt 21)
An album so colossal, so audacious and so downright cool… but what the hell could it be? Come inside to find out more. Check out Ginger’s past Secret History Of Rock’n'Roll entries.
Hell Below/Stars Above
2001 -– Interscope
There’s a theme in the house, ladies and gentlemen.
More than a couple of times I’ve singled out an album as being a classic, only to follow the hyperbole with ‘unfortunately the band split up not long after its release’, or words to that depressing effect.
Well, why break a habit now that it’s simmering nicely in the pan? This week’s choice effort is another in the ‘death knell’ series where a group develops a distinct style based on years of honing their skills the hard way and, once they nail this glorious sound down for magnetised eternity, they go and call it a day, resisting the urge to capitalise on the gruelling dues duly paid.
After Toadies formed in 1989, the Texan quartet would record a debut album, ‘Rubberneck’, in 1994 that would almost hit platinum status based on a pummelling mash-up of Pixies playing grunge highlights. Featuring the possibly TOO awesome ‘Possum Kingdom’ (which The Wildhearts covered as part of our ‘Stop Us If You’ve Heard This One Before Vol. 1’ tribute album) the album was such a success that it almost threw the band, and record label Interscope Records, into confusion as to how to expertly follow it.
And four years later they attempted to do so with an album tentatively entitled ‘Feeler’.
After proposed recordings were rejected by Interscope the band took the unwanted tracks, re-recorded a bunch of them, added some new shards of sonic propulsion and, in 2001, a full SEVEN years after the release of their debut, Toadies gave the world their second album proper, ‘Hell Below/Stars Above’, an album so colossal, so audacious and so downright cool that the band decided that the correct mode of conduct would be to pack their bags and get out of a business that would leave a band hanging for this long. And believe me when I say I fully sympathise and empathise.
And although the classic quote by Charlie Watts commenting on the Stones’ first 25 years of service (“Yeah, 5 years working and 20 years hanging around”) carries genuine comedy weight, the reality of being stood in creative quicksand bore down on the band to the point that bass player, Lisa Umbarger, ultimately left the group, resulting in the disbandment of this fine US powerhouse four-piece.
Charging from the stables with ‘Plane Crash’, complete with ‘woah… yeah’ choruses, there is no confusion as to the sheer weight that the collective Toadies force intend to deliver on this album. Singer Vaden Todd Lewis (then just plain old Todd Lewis) has the ultimate rock growl stirred up with enough punk spirit and indie cred to suggest possession of THE ultimate voice. ‘Plane Crash’ is little over two minutes of goosebump fury with no regard for speed limits.
‘Push The Hand’ eases off the gas enough to establish a heavy swing that increases in intensity until the chorus pounds the earth like an angry colossus. Once again Lewis’s vocals leaving every hair on the arms standing to attention and he breaks into almost Steve Whiteman (Kix) territory. This is the single most thrilling aspect to the Toadies’ sound: while it has enough crazy Pixies rhythmic twists to please fans of far cooler fare the brutal truth is that Toadies simply fucking ROCK with almost heavy metal zeal. The result is well played, perfectly tuned, expertly produced hard rock with a Kurt Cobain-sized streak of aggression. In fact comparisons with Nirvana are as inevitable as they are tedious, and while I’ll still make them it’s fairer to say that with their previous album the Pixies tag stuck fast, here they branch out into a more imaginative Frank Black ‘Teenager Of The Year’ play park, albeit gained by impish forced entry.
While ‘Little Sin’ serves up a classic staccato riff that complements the perfectly double-tracked vocal, this would be a good time to introduce guitar whizzkid Clark Vogeler. Effortlessly playing with graceful economy he is as likely to break off into a jazz grunge tangent while all the time fully aware of the track he’s playing to. Tasty and inventive. And no one controls feedback like this guy. Not Hendrix, not no one, y’hear?
‘Motivational’ starts with as odd a set of chords as you’ll hear in a post-rock pop song, surging with menace until its own intensity breaks its restrictions and off it charges in pissed-off spiral flight. Lewis’s insane vocal stylings, recalling Frank Black on steroids, hold the madness together while sneering in deranged enjoyment at the carnage. ‘Heel’ begins as a Django strum that contains the ever-present Toadies threat of imminent eruption, and erupt it does. By GOD it does. And as Todd Lewis stands at the precipice, bellowing like a Christian fundamentalist, Vogeler belches in filthy whammy bar swoops into the very depths of Hades. Awesome stuff. Truly.
‘You’ll Come Down’ comes as a blessed relief, then, after such a battery of energy, allowing its walking-bass dominant Pixies verse legs with which to survey the carnage. Satisfied with the album’s justified damage it rewards the listener with a Urge Overkill-meets-Doughboys style chorus before lifting itself back on to its fearsome steed, gently cantering between the flames and debris as ‘Pressed Against The Sky’ plays in the background, to superb cinematic effect
‘What We Have We Steal’ lurches like the unholy alliance of Tad and Jack Endino, breaking into a melodic chorus with just enough menace to hold it back from Cheap Trick territory but allowing it to wallow in Nirvana. This makes Toadies such an easy band to like. What they do is so inherently cool while staying loyal to traditions of melody and structure like no one has managed to straddle with quite such elegance. And they almost give the game away with the sublime songwriting skills that are written all the way through ‘Jigsaw Girl’. At once open and confident, the ghosts of John Lennon and Jeff Buckley are heard to sweep through the corridors of its cavernous, loping melody.
Toadies are fundamentally an amazing band making very loud music. This is the secret.
The new wave pop of ‘Sweetness’ is an impossible lure to resist, and with a chorus straight out of ‘Bleach’, this is a song that Cobain would have greatly approved of. In fact Toadies are probably what Nirvana would have developed into once their tortured singer had accepted his love for straight-up rock and grew out of the tortured artist trap.
‘Hell Below, Stars Above’ is the album’s highlight, probably, with its choppy intro threatening some awful ska/punk diversion until the verse kicks in with pure, undiluted pop that pulls the track into the place that Toadies have threatened to take us for the entire album. A place where humour and tradition enjoy a smirk-heavy tryst as they turn up the guitars beyond what is accepted as appropriate. Sheer noisy joyous bliss. It’s a difficult song not to grin inanely throughout, especially during the hilariously brief guitar-that-shouldn’t-be, that is until the final payoff where this incredible band twist the entire song around to reveal a melody of Brian Wilson-sized ambition which, naturally, builds with almost unbearable poignancy.
Where else could this beautiful album possibly have left on the emotional map to explore?
The answer is ‘Dollskin’, the album’s other highlight. A simply breathtaking vocal performance guides this hauntingly familiar chord progression to its final resting place within in a shimmering foam of blistering guitar-fuzz headed skyward. This is the place where perfect music resides. Where a performer is united with the song he was born to sing. Where musicians fuse like planets aligning. Where sense is made of every misguided musical purchase you have ever made.
The Toadies understand your dissatisfaction and are here to offer solace.
An amazing band, an amazing album and an amazing shame that they would split up soon after the release of this, their greatest hour.
I’d like to stop saying that. It’s kinda depressing. Still, thank God these people at least have the decency to leave us their music.
‘Hell Below, Stars Above’? Here, somewhere located in the middle, Toadies make it a pretty damned beautiful place to be.
Stop press: Toadies returned for a reunion show in March 2006, and have played a number of gigs since. They played their first ever British shows this past June. Their mini-album, ‘Made In Texas’ (Maybe Music), is out now.