I was not always the music-savvy person you see before you today. For most of high school, my CD collection consisted of the entire ouevres of The Monkees and The Beatles and nothing else. I listened to the radio, but I had no idea what was popular with those "in the know." That began to change in the mid-to-late '90s, but not without some bumps along the road.
In 1994 I saw Toad The Wet Sprocket on David Letterman and was mesmerized by their performance of Fall Down. I went out and bought Dulcenia immediately (well, the next morning). You have to understand that this was revolutionary for me at the time. Buying a CD by an "alternative" band with a strangely indecipherable name? That wasn't my style back then. But I loved the CD. It led me into the false belief that I was now approaching that elusive cutting edge. I remember telling a K-Mart co-worker who loved The Misfits and Husker Du that I'd bought a Toad CD. I guess I thought it gave me some sort of credibility with him; we both liked strangely-named bands. I now realize I was SO wrong, but he was polite about it. He just gave me a weird look and an "okay."
That didn't stop me from getting every one of their CDs and enjoying them thoroughly. I've missed Toad since their '98 breakup. Oh there was the satisfying 2003 reunion tour, but we haven't had any recorded music to equal the band's best work. Lead singer Glen Phillips' first solo album, 2000's Abulum, was likeable but unremarkable. His collaborative 2004 Mutual Admiration Society (see review #43) release was toothless and a bit boring. Thankfully, third try is the charm with the newly released Winter Pays For Summer.
The album was produced by John "Strawberry" Fields, who is quickly making a name for himself as a producer. He is already responsible for two albums I enjoyed very much: Mandy Moore's Coverage and The Honeydogs' 10,000 Years. One reason I'm so ready to worship at Fields' alter is that he's managed to bring former Jellyfish drummer/singer Andy Sturmer out of hiding. Sturmer provided backing vocals on both albums mentioned, and this one as well. Other contributors include Jon Brion, Ben Folds, Attractions drummer Pete Thomas, and a couple of Minnesota folk: Kristin Mooney and Dan Wilson. Obviously, Phillips has fallen in with the right crowd.
The collaborative spirit buoys up some of Phillips' best melodies and lyrics since the Toad years. Sturmer's background vocals on Thankful and Falling will warm the hearts of any Jellyfish fan (the latter song even contains the Jellyfish-esque turn of phrase "High Priestess of Bitterness"). Similarly, Ben Folds' and Kristin Mooney's extended undertones on Courage lend a contemplative air. Semisonic's Dan Wilson gets co-writing credit on three songs, the best of which is the hymn-like True. It sounds like it could slot easily onto Semisonic's last album, the overlooked All About Chemistry (which, not coincidentally, Fields also had a hand in producing).
As you'd expect, there are about four slow ponderous numbers, but none of them are enough of a killjoy to dampen the spirit of the other 9.
My favorite song is called Easier. Over a semi-funky guitar lick, declares his love, telling the object of his affection that he'd like to be "the toy in your cereal box / the Carter in your peace talks." The rest of this fearful love song is just as specific and surprising. The songs on Abulum were just as lyrically interesting, but for the most part they didn't have the catchy melodies to match. This one does.
One other thing Phillips does in Easier is coin himself as a "geek rock dude." Consulting my inner musical category encyclopedia to find the proper way to describe Toad The Wet Sprocket I came up blank. But "geek rock" is perfect. If only I'd known that in high school.
Fave Song: Easier