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Its been 23 years since the Toadies started playing rock music in Fort Worth, Texas, but even the band will admit that the road they've taken over that lengthy period of time has been anything but smooth.
Through lineup changes, shelved albums, member departures, band break-ups, one-off reunions and full-on reformations, the Toadies are an act that has experienced nearly everything — except, perhaps, the freedom to grow as they choose.
On July 31, the Toadies will release their fifth full-length album — a disc fittingly called Play.Rock.Music., because, perhaps for the first time in their career, the band feels capable of unapologetically doing just that.
After bursting onto the national scene with their breakthrough Rubberneck album, which begat their signature single "Possum Kingdom," the successful follow-up single "Away" and the immense fan favorite "Tyler," the Toadies returned to the studio in 1998 with the pressure of trying to match their first album's success. The result was a disc called Feeler, an album the band's then-label home, Insterscope Records, was supposed to release in 1998/99 but decided to shelve despite the band's protests. So it was back to the drawing board for the 2001-released Hell Below/Stars Above, an awkwardly timed sophomore album that enjoyed moderate success and almost universal critical acclaim but was ultimately doomed because of the seven-year wait it took to arrive.
Disappointed and dejected, the band dissolved just a few months after that album's release. Bassist Lisa Umbarger quit music altogether. Drummer Mark Reznicek joined Dallas country band Eleven Hundred Springs. Guitarist Clark Vogeler moved to Hollywood, where he became an Emmy Award-winning editor for breakout cable reality series Project Runway. Front man and primary songwriter Vaden Todd Lewis formed a new band called the Burden Brothers.
It was a reunion show in Dallas in 2006, originally planned as a one-off gig, which reignited the band's spark. The following year, the band embarked on a surprise tour of Texas. A year later, they fully re-formed, recording and releasing 2008's No Deliverance for Dallas' Kirtland Records and ushering bassist Doni Blair (formerly of Dallas band Hagfish) into Umbarger's former role.
Immediately, fans of the band ecstatically welcomed the Toadies' return. On stage at Lollapalooza and Austin City Limits, they played to the largest — and maybe even rowdiest — crowds of their careers. On tours in support of No Deliverance, they played across the country to sold-out rooms and eager audiences.
Refreshed and inspired, the band launched their own annual festival in 2008, and, each summer since, thousands have traveled to remote Texas locations to attend Dia De Los Toadies — not only to observe the festival's namesake in action, but to watch the band's favorite up-and-coming Texas talents as well.
In 2010, redemption finally came: The band re-recorded their Feeler tracks and, rather cathartically, released for Kirtland, the second Toadies album that never was.
This past spring, the band, joined by Grammy-nominated producer Chris "Frenchie" Smith (Jet, Built to Spill, ...And You Will Know Us By The Trail of Dead), entered an Austin recording studio with a clean slate — and, for the first time in the run of the band, Lewis says, without any fully written tracks in tow.
"I just wanted to do something I wouldn't have ordinarily done," Lewis says. "I wanted to broaden my abilities as a writer. And it turned out to be a beautiful process. If it felt good right then and there in the studio as we fleshed it out, then we knew it was pretty good. And it just worked, man."
So much so that the sessions, which were originally planned so the band could record a new EP release, ended up providing the Toadies with a complete full-length's worth of material. And not for naught: The songs on Play.Rock.Music. are some of the best the Toadies have ever released. The trademarks of the band are all present — Lewis' howl, the chugging guitars, the unrepentant angst — but they're also improved upon.
Says Lewis: "These songs are decidedly more poppy, I'd say. I mean, I've written a lot of songs with no chorus before, but these ones have hooks."
They also have a certain fire to them: "Rattler's Revival" boasts an infectious bounce (and, on a bonus version of the song, horns provided by Dia De Los Toadies alums Black Joe Lewis & The Honeybears); "Summer of the Strange" finds the band rediscovering an uneasy-yet-alluring creepiness it hasn't showcased since Rubberneck; and "Laments of a Good Man," Lewis proclaims, is as weird a song as he's ever penned.
"It's just all over the place," he says before relating that song's oddities to the new album's sound as a whole. "There's some stuff on here that will make eyebrows go up for sure. Hopefully, that's a good thing."
Without question, it is: With the band's second successful stint now having lasted almost as long as the initial run, Play.Rock.Music. showcases a band in full stride, an outfit with renewed vigor and, perhaps most important, a group with a clear and confident understanding of itself.
The Toadies' long, slithering road to this fifth full-length may not have been pretty. But should it have been? Not at all.
The Toadies don't make pretty music. They make music that music that crawls under, into and through your skin. They make music that makes neck hairs stand on end. They make music that begs to be blasted at full volume — with haunting lyrics that bear their battle scars proudly.
The Toadies do that masterfully on Play.Rock.Music. And, Lewis promises, they plan on doing that for many other records to come, too. Surrounding the release, they'll proudly showcase this new material this summer – first, while on tour with fellow '90s stalwarts Helmet and, later, at their fifth annual Dia De Los Toadies event in New Braunfels, Texas, on August 31 and September 1.
This, after all, is a band that's released just five studio LPs in 23 years. So you get the feeling that Lewis, Reznicek, Vogeler and Blair won't mind waiting a little longer before writing the remaining chapters in their ever-undulating story.