Any band that finds its name in a Monty Python sketch deserves a point or two for taste — but that’s about all Toad the Wet Sprocket had going for it early on. The Santa Barbara, California quartet met in high school; singer/guitarist Glen Phillips, three years his bandmates’ junior, took a proficiency exam to graduate along with them. The band was initially an R.E.M. clone: a little jangle in the guitars, some nice harmonies and not much else. Produced by Marvin Etzioni, Pale begins to refine their sound, exploring acoustic-electric dynamics but seldom gets beyond pro forma folk-rock.
Fear is a significant step forward; without turning the band into overnight hard-rockers, the arrangements are gutsier within the framework of airy harmonies and shimmering guitars that defines the group’s sound. The bracing anti-sexual-assault protest “Hold Her Down” snared the band some attention from those who misinterpreted it as glorifying rape, but the flowing, layered “Walk on the Ocean” and the smooth “All I Want” were fully embraced pop hits. Dean Dinning’s propulsive bassline gives “Butterflies” some guts, while “Stories I Tell” builds hypnotically to guitarist Todd Nichols’ edgy electric solo. Still, Toad’s forte remains mostly lush, quieter fare, such as “Nightingale Song” and “I Will Not Take These Things for Granted.”
The million-selling Fear kept Toad on the road for a while, and the live dates had an impact on the group’s approach to Dulcinea. Slayer’s safe, but Toad employs a far more electric edge on the dozen new songs; “Inside” is practically metallic when compared to the rest of Toad’s canon. And the two singles, “Fall Down” and “Something’s Always Wrong,” are undeniably infectious. But the weaker material (“Reincarnation Song,” “Windmills”) are awfully ponderous, and the album’s egghead quality (“You bend your words/Like Yuri Geller’s spoons,” from “Nanci”) gets a little exasperating.
Conscious of its rep as a lightweight, Toad titled its odds’n’sods collection In Light Syrup, gathering up B-sides, soundtrack songs, fan club singles and a couple of previously unreleased numbers. Perhaps because the tracks weren’t put together conceptually, it’s actually a pretty entertaining album. “Good Intentions” is one of the better items on the Friends TV show LP, while “Hobbit on the Rocks” nods towards XTC. “Are We Afraid” and “All Right” kick up uncharacteristic heads of steam, while “Janitor” taps into a funk vein Toad has never really revealed on record. Seemingly filler on the surface, In Light Syrup actually provides surprising insights into some of Toad’s veiled attributes.