Toad the Wet Sprocket has long been saddled with a bad rap. Rising up alongside so many soppy, flaccid nu-soft rock acts in the early 90s, and buoyed by a series of semi-chipper and catchy rock radio hits, Toad was mistakenly thrown into the “adult alternative” ghetto. Their albums, however, contain some of the most sober, deceptively dark material released on a major label in the early 90s (Don’t believe me? Try sitting through 1990’s “Pale” without crying, drinking or being tempted to open a vein). In a sense, Toad were done in by their own success. The punters came for the uplift of such fan-friendly jams as “All I Want” and “Good Intentions” but tuned out the deeper, more intriguing cuts like “Stories I Tell” and, well, “Jam”.
So, 16 years after the release of their last studio album (1997’s vastly underrated “Coil”) and several years after reigniting as a live act, the band returns with “New Constellation”, a humble (if overlong) distillation of the band’s strengths as songwriters. I am an unabashed fan of the band, but I have to say that it took me several attempts to make it past the first two tracks on the album. The saccharine-sweet title track and slight “California Wasted” play into the myth of the band as inconsequential dad-rock…nothing terrible, but nothing to write home about. Singer-songwriter Glen Phillips can write indelible melodies in his sleep, and these simply don’t add much to the catalog. Like a boxer rope-a-doping their opponent, however, the band lulls you in and hits it home with the one-two punch of “The Moment” and “Rare Bird”. Both trade in the tight harmonies of Phillips and guitarist-singer Todd Nichols and are sultry reminders of the minor-key melodies and subtle instrumental flourishes that help so many of their songs wind their way into that spot in your heart where desire and longing meet.
Interestingly (and somewhat confoundingly), the band reworks the track “See You Again” by Lapdog (Nicholls’ post-Toad band with drummer Randy Guss), adding new lyrics and changing the title to “I’ll Bet On You”. Perhaps it’s simply my familiarity with the track (having enjoyed it for more than a decade), but the new version replaces the yearning of the original with more-upbeat lyrics and something is lost. It’s not bad, per se, but it seems largely inessential. The remainder of the album vacillates between the two modes set by the initial quartet of songs: the bright and buoyant “pop” parts tangoing with their darker and more mysterious side. In a way, this is exactly as it should be...it continues to display the knack for heartfelt, populist songwriting that was a hallmark of their biggest hits while rewarding “true” fans of the band with the melancholy and difficult emotional terrain that defined their greatest songs. While it likely won’t deliver new fans (or win over the critics), it’s a solid entry in a stellar catalog.