Monday, September 28, 2015

Album Review: The Toadies - Heretics

In the nineties I always ran The Toadies parallel alongside Foo Fighters as just a straight-up fun rock n' roll/pop-punk band that emerged from the early rotting stages of the flower that was Grunge. Only difference being a lack of true commercial success on their part in comparison to those which I deemed their wingmen, which either forced them to stay the course, or their staying the course forced commercial success away from them. Mind you I don't have a very deep pocket of bands I pull from when it comes to this kind of music, because to be honest I don't indulge in it all that often, so for me these two are the heavy hitters and that's about it for that niche'. But just like their aforementioned contemporaries (Foo Fighters - if you're not following along here) released a retrospective acoustic album spanning their career thus far in 2006 (Skin and Bones), which included the infusion of new, more eclectic instrumentation into old songs reimagined acoustically as well as brand new songs written specifically for the performance, Toadies - twenty years into their career - have done the same.

The band took it upon themselves to celebrate their two decade existence by recording a studio version of an annual acoustic weekend that the band hosts in their native state of Texas called 'Dia De Los Toadies'. But don't let that light-heartedness fool you - if there is one thing the Toadies have always had a knack for it's spinning very dark first-first person narratives into bouncy and accessible feel good rock music: 'Tyler', 'Jigsaw Girl', and their calling card 'Possum Kingdom' are all prime examples of this - all of which appear on Heretics. And all of which almost seem darker and more emotive when stripped away from their red-level volumes and slowed down to a more sinister, and plotted thought (though 'Possum Kingdom' in it's original form still feels superior in my opinion). Low brass and keyboards accentuate the acoustic skeletons, thickening up the bones with swampy southern chunks of mud and re-visioning some songs with angles of lounge-like slipperiness ('The Appeal' and 'Dollskin'), and infusing others with back-alley jazz grooves and bluegrass ('Backslider', 'Beside You').

There are also a handful of new songs here, one of which being a down-tempo cover of Blondie's 'Heart Of Glass'. The almost-danceable 'In The Belly Of The Whale' opens the album, while 'Queen Of Scars' sounds like such a trademark Toadies song that you'll forget you're listening to a specifically acoustic record, as it's hard to imagine the track any other way. The closer, 'Send You To Heaven', fantastically carries on that serial killer-in-the-sun knack of darkly spun trains of thought all gussied up as accessible pop that I adore from the band. I was hoping the final notes would be the ravenous ending of the song that the group recorded but never released (heavier than any moment on any Toadies record) as an anvil-like juxtaposition to the softness that preceded it. Yet the riding out of "The Beatles and The Stones" sung so melodically begins to feel less like a pretty little hitchhiker's musical predilection that will wind up signing her death warrant only twenty miles down the road, and more like the overwhelming submission to a dark and primal instinct from our narrator's point of view as he frantically digs past "the beetles and the stones" after the deed is done. Maybe I'm revealing a bit too much about my own fucked-upness here.

Heretics comes off in it's totality as a deeper perspective on a band that's often seemed to toy in musically shallow waters (not that their music is shallow - it's a euphemism), it's an unfolding of new dimensions from the group. Some songs stand on their own even though other versions of them exist on other albums, and some seem inferior to their original counterpart. I'd definitely recommend to any Toadies fan as both a retrospective to their career as well as an appreciation to the subtle nuances and textures they add here that propel them to another level in a different genre than the one they seem the most comfortable in. If you be a new-comer to the Toadies this probably isn't the place to start, as this batch of songs without the knowledge of how they were just doesn't have the strength to make you want to hear the originals, or may just lead you to bands who specialize in this sort of thing and therefore probably do it better. The fact that the band toys lyrically with themes of obsession, homicide, and self-defeatism does add a uniqueness to the over-all product here as this is something that's typically rare from bands who may specialize in this kind of music and always adds a ying to the yang when the right rock band pulls something like Heretics off. So if that is your cup of tea, I recommend it - otherwise, check out Hell Below/Stars Above.


Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Foo Fighters: Top 12 Favorite B-Sides

A Warning: I still dig the Foo Fighters, I cringe a little bit as their career moves on - every documentary that's released, every arena they play, every guest spot on an album from some rock icon, and every new theme that a record is built around feels like they keep moving farther and farther away from me. I'm not mad at them for it, if I were as much of fan now as I was in the 90's it would be the greatest thing ever, but it's a hard truth to face that an album like Foo Fighters will truly be a one-of-a-kind from them. Foo Fighters still reeks of that fuzzy 90's alt-punk nostalgia, even in it's heaviest moments it's still kind of soft, and at it's loudest it still remains quiet. A testament to the apprehension and lack of confidence in Grohl putting himself in the center of things after being in the background for so long. A quality you can hear in his restrained vocals throughout the entire album. The record feels ridiculously personal, like a warm closet. And I feel like a bit of that carried on into the next album, and a little after that, until there just wasn't enough of that charming uncertainty left to sprinkle here and there. I'd never have pegged them to be selling out Wembley Stadium in 15 years back in 1995.

These days there are no restraints - no emotional, no personal, no financial. They still sound like the Foo Fighters, just out of the closet and galloping in wide open spaces, like so many other mainstream rock bands out there. They just seem to ever-so-gradually blend a bit more into the herd with each record that gets released.  That foundation of thought is what the following list is built upon, FYI. The Foo Fighters have a shit-ton of songs out there floating about that never made it to an official album. These are my favorites of those:

12. The Colour And The Shape (Colour And The Shape French Limited Edition, Monkey Wrench single CD 1): I don't particularly get off when the Foo try to get all heavy-as-fuck, but this being probably the most heavy-as-fuck thing they've ever done amongst a very thick catalogue of poppy punk rock whoopee definitely stands it by itself and far away from the rest of the herd. Not to mention that it is a bit off-the-wall and bad ass. Aaaaaand I always think it's kind of cool for a song that an album is actually named after (in this case the band's "seminal" album) not to be released on said album and instead rear it's ugly head as a back alley B-side; see also Elliott Smith's "Figure 8".

11. Normal (Times Like These single CD 2): Ironically enough 'Normal' plays the role opposite of it's predecessor on this list, as it's a pretty straightforward by-the-numbers Foo Fighters track. That being said it feels like it embodies almost all of the qualities of their songwriting in one fell swoop, a little bit of rock, a little bit of pop, a touch of balladry, kind of singing, kind of screaming, stellar melodies.  'Normal' sounds like it can be thrown into the tracklist of any album after 1995 without fuckin' up the mix, which kind of makes it classic Foo Fighters.

10. Baker Street (My Hero single, Next Year single CD 2): Swapping the brass for a guitar as the main spine of the song gave it the grit that the original unfortunately never had for me. All the while it stays subtle and never gets as over the top as a song like this has the potential of getting when it's being covered by a rock band - probably more because of the production than the performance, but Grohl's quieter vocals keep it grounded too. The Foo's music has always been composed for a sunny fall day for me, this song always was too: combining the two was a lightning strike that just made sense.

9. World  - demo (Resolve single CD 2): A couple of months ago at the time of this writing, somebody released the "Million Dollar Sessions" onto the internet. These were the scrapped demos of a batch of songs that would later appear on One by One; essentially the writing on the demos doesn't differ too much from what was presented on the album. The demo's quality is, well, demo quality - for a band as big as the Foo Fighters that's still better than most, but it's still a whole lot more straightforward and a whole lot less bombastic than what was released in it's finality, and to me it sounded more like the Foo Fighters than what came out.  'World' is a demo, I don't know if it was recorded by an entire band or just Grohl, but it has the simple-but-good, less polished, less dynamic approach to it that reminds me of the early, lo-fi, less confident days of Dave by himself, which makes it feel all the more personal.

8. Petrol CB (The Pocketwatch Demos): The most Nirvana-esque of anything Grohl did by himself or with the Foo, it actually plays out like a photo-negative of any of the more manic songs on Nevermind or Bleach - pulling a switcheroo by distortedly screaming the verses and melodically singing the chorus. It's not on the list because it lacks it's own identity, it's on the list because it drips with the nostalgia of 90's guitar fuzz and the juxtaposed shoegaze-like melodies in the vocals during the chorus. It's insecure and awesome for it.

7. Dear Lover (Scream 2 soundtrack, My Hero UK single): So damn sappy it may in fact be completely tongue in cheek. It is Foo balladry ripped right from the Colour And The Shape era, only it never succumbs to power chords or the grand finale the way the aforementioned's 'Up In Arms' and 'February Stars' do - and serves as a full platter rather than the appetizer 'Doll' wound up being, which is the closest thing it relates to. They never came back to do anything like this again, and they couldn't without taking huge steps backward, which is tough for an arena band to do.

6. Milk (The Pocketwatch Demos): This is the epitome of all of the great things that Foo Fighters used to be, lo-fi guitars strumming with the momentum of Sonic Youth, the basement production, the straight forward unsure vocals floating on top of it all, simple lyrics, love it. Foo Fighters and The Pocketwatch Demos kind of share a space all their own in the band's discography, this track is one of the best on both.

5. The Sign (In Your Honor UK and Vinyl editions): This song fucking rocks - it's got that leaning forward keep-going-till-you-fall-into-something momentum that songs like 'Everlong' and 'Generator' flaunted. It sounds like late nineties Foo Fighters filtered through mid-2000 Foo Fighters. Actually, it sounds a whole lot like 'Fraternity', primarily it's chorus "give me a sign I'll come for you" / "I'll never be fraternity". That similarity is the only reason I can think of as to why this one never turned up an A-side. Like maybe he wrote it, recorded it, did everything they needed to do to it, then one night at 3 a.m. he shot up from bed like "FUCK!! Did that already....B-side.". This song is the reason Fraternity isn't on the list, I know it's kind of bullshit but with this I just don't need that. Dig?

4. Floaty - BBC Session (Big Me single): The alternative version of what appears on the self-titled debut is a softly strummed, lighter than air take whose fragility feels palpable. As though the whole song could dissipate completely at any moment like putting your hand through a vapor cloud hanging stagnant in the air. A better alternative version of any song in the catalogue that was remixed or reimagined acoustically.

3. Down In The Park (Songs In The Key of X, Monkey Wrench single CD 2): Yeah, it's a cover, but it's such a bad ass cover. Kind of dark and ominous (for the Foo), like I can smell the rubbish burning inside the garbage can as I stroll past in slow motion. The performance is straightforward but the tone and sounds are like melting yellow starburst on the pleasure zones of my brain. For me it is a perfect sonic representation of what the songs lyrics are about, more so than the original.

2. A320 (Godzilla soundtrack): This was released somewhere between The Colour and the Shape and There Is Nothing Left To Lose, which means it was recorded closer to the former. This was a flash of things to come from the Foo, but at the time it was something so seemingly out of their league that it became one hell of a hidden gem and a half. A gentle monologue that builds to a soaring instrumental latter half, sonically painting it's theme onto our imaginations as our narrator's plane comes gently plummeting to the ground, disappearing into the clouds below during the fade out. A mature and well written number that scoffs at mainstream rock song structures and actually includes, strings? Are those strings I hear from the band in 1998?  I know it seems a tad hypocritical to put this track so high on the list given my penchant for the simpler more stripped down approach that I hold the band in high regard for, but while this kind of thing is just another spoke in the wheel for the band now,  back then it was, in their catalogue, a beautiful and epic movement - and remains so for me.

1. How I Miss You (Winnebago/Big Me/I'll Stick Around singles): I know it's ridiculous, but this weak-ass, soft and simple little whimper to yowl is arguably one of my all time favorite songs from the band, for all of those reasons. Foo Fighters is my favorite album from this group, for all of the reasons I've sporadically listed above, but especially because of how personal it feels - this song is everywhere he didn't go in so many spots on that album all congealed together, in the end it's an extension of it. A final purge from a place he'd never go back to again.