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Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Return Trip: Toad the Wet Sprocket - Dulcinea


Toad the Wet Sprocket
Dulcinea
(Columbia ; 1994)


N.B. - All of the Return Trip articles this month feature albums I got into via that venerable audio format known as the cassette tape.

My first cassette*, my first concert and even the first song I learned to play on guitar ("Crowing") were all Toad the Wet Sprocket. At one point in time I owned seven Toad t-shirts of various varieties. I was, obviously a fan. And I can remember curling myself up in the back-back seat of my family's Chevy Suburban on our trips up to Virginia, walkman in hand, headphones in ear, listening to that sainted cassette copy of Dulcinea, the first album of theirs I ever owned.

Rabidly absorbing music being played on MTV, I took right to the videos for "Fall Down" and "Something's Always Wrong." There was something engaging about them for me as I was just 'discovering' my budding obsession with music. Dulcinea would ultimately jockey back and forth with their second album, Pale, as my favorite, but Dulcinea holds the emotional edge.

How does it sound now? There are traces all over this record of the mid-90s alt-rock production that dominated radio, but it's the good traces. For one thing, like its platinum predecessor Fear, it was produced by Gavin MacKillop, who also had done The Church's Priest = Aura (tied as my favorite Church album) and the Goo Goo Doll's Superstar Car Wash. But unlike Fear, Dulcinea's production has weathered the test of time much better. You would hardly recognize the two records as being produced by the same man, yet they were. Dulcinea was a darker, thicker record. Fear had swung by on its sheer, glittering pop structures and layered production. Dulcinea was recorded largely live in-studio, with little in the way of purposeful overdubs, thus giving it the more warm and thick sound.

It helps that, pound for pound, this was Toad's finest songwriting moment, exploring themes of duality, rebirth and cycles in equal turns.

Opening with "Fly From Heaven," Glen Phillips' lyrical imagery is off and running as he lays out the story of a witness to the life of Jesus - someone wondering if he were real or just some guy claiming bizarre things. "Like water through my hands" is how he describes the brief period of time in which he is able to witness what's going on. The album essentially begins with the story of a well known 're-birth' - Jesus who would rise from death. This theme largely goes unexplored in the middle section, but comes back with a vengeance for the closing trilogy of "Inside," "Begin" and "Reincarnation Song." Lead guitarist Todd Nichols takes vocals for the first two, detailing stories that alternate between understandings of existence and the transitionary, not final, nature of death. "Reincarnation Song" is unlike anything else in Toad's catalogue - a screaming, three-chord narrative of a man's journey from death to the afterlife to rebirth, the ending reenacting the undoubtedly cacophonous and traumatic experience of being born. Taking the album as a circle, this leads us back to "Fly From Heaven," completing the album's path and starting again. Even the album art's flowers form an infinity loop, hinting at this theme even further.

The theme of duality dominates the rest of the record - from its literary namesake's dual nature, to the 'dual' visions of the flower and vase on the cover, and over into the lyrics of the songs. "Stupid," which at first seems like a tossed-off short ramble, is a deeper story about misconceptions made because of assumptions. "Something's Always Wrong" and "Fall Down" examine characters who portray themselves as one thing while harboring another. Even the goofy, infectious "Nanci" is an ode to Glen Phillips' indecision when it comes to preferring either Nanci Griffith or Loretta Lynn - setting these two sides of himself against one another. Nothing is taken for face value in the course of the album - not the distracted lover of "Crowing" or the ability to know the true direction of the wind in "Windmills."

This 'dual' nature is perfect for the cassette format as the band uses "Windmills" to kick off the second side (after the droning, moody "Listen" winds up the first side perfectly) and reintroduce the themes for the rest of the way through the album. It could be the fact that I came to this album on cassette that has allowed me to spend countless time over the years exploring its themes. Even as I listen to this album on CD, as I have for years since then, I still hear the album in terms of the divide between sides one and two. It seems the only appropriate way.

Rating: A(udiophilic)

(Rating scale: A, E, I, O, U and sometimes Y)

Judge For Yourself:

Toad the Wet Sprocket - "Fly From Heaven"

Toad the Wet Sprocket - "Windmills"

Purchase a used copy or download Dulcinea from Amazon.

* - Okay, so, really my first cassette was Kriss Kross' Totally Krossed Out, but Dulcinea was next and I usually just run with that. Okay. You happy now?

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