5 out of 5
Produced by: Chris “Frenchie” Smith
Toadies tap right into a 90s grunge style that’s perfect for me, swerving a bit away from the slacker and angsty indulgences of the era (that I think morphed into alt-metal…?) and mapping it to quality pop chops – perhaps owing to the early guiding production hands of masters Tom Rothrock and Rob Schnapf on their major label releases – while also willing to get pub-crawling dumb with some reckless rocking out; Vaden Todd Lewis’ voice is perfect for crawling through these styles – gruff and inviting – and nearly every single song has a memorable hook without falling into the every-hook-is-the-same predictability of, say, Everclear. Add to this Lewis’ often dark and obsessive lyrics, and it’s just such a compelling blend that’s led to a series of releases that it makes any Toadies follower want to shake their head in “you don’t know what you’re missing” disappointment for any who gave up after Possum Kingdom stopped getting regular radio airplay.
So that’s the preamble: I’m sold on Toadies, and there hasn’t been a disc that doesn’t get regular play for me.
That said, every album also has its quibbles. While I’ve praised the way the group juggles a few different styles, they’re still prone to their own indulgences, either leaning too much into one vibe or another or, sometimes, just coasting on what can be called the overall Toadies vibe – a kind of rootsy version of grunge – with Lewis hollering silly single-line rave-ups atop. For as much as I love it, their first post-Interscope release, No Deliverance, had its share of this stuff, as the group possibly went heavier and swear-ier than usual to “prove” they still had chops. Their followup to this, though, Play.Rock.Music., takes its title as the tactic: having done the proving, and having gone through the radio single trenches years back – there’s a best of album in the rearview already – this is, simply, the most mature and confident album of their career, without any of the forced Deliverance bravado, and Lewis’ thoughts still full of darkness, but not as evasive as before, when mapping his tales to killers and mass deaths: his words are more direct, and often more affecting as a result.
The production serves these riffs perfectly, keeping the pop of the bass and drums present with guitars and vocals mixed up and down as suits the tone of the song or hook; the album flows from punkier openers to a mid-section that’s brilliantly smoothed out, ebbing between rockers and more contemplative fare, but never without edge, allowing closer The Appeal’s comparatively unplugged style to actually hit but not just feel like the requisite quiet ending piece – its emotions fit with the rest of the disc, while its 6+ minute runtime is also earned by the way everything that precedes hasn’t rushed us to this point.
It would be too simple to call this a perfect rock album, although it is that. Less simply, this is penultimate Toadies: it is all the hooks of their oeuvre, with the promise of all those tracks that’ve proven to us that there’s more to the band than just those hooks, sung and played with the confidence of a songwriter who’s got the bumps and bruises of the travels to this point, and has maintained their bitter smile about it all.