REVIEW BY: Julia Skochko
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 04/29/2009
I’m sorry Todd Lewis has been hurt. Really, I am. The Toadies’ frontman seems like a swell guy. Listening to Rubberneck, though, I’m torn between giving him a pat on the back and, well, sort of hoping the abuse continues. The Toadies’ debut is a largely-unheralded triumph of ‘90s alt-rock. It remains to this day as pointy-fanged and exhilarating as it was during the first Clinton administration. And the thing which has kept this disc ferocious and fresh for nearly two decades is…sodium benzoate? Not quite. It’s Lewis’s righteous fury. Grunge rockers tended to emote implosively. The Toadies, however, are emphatically explosive. Syringes and self-loathing are nowhere to be found. There is rage. There is only rage. Eleven tracks of it, hot as thermite and twice as nasty. Todd’s torments, while unfortunate, were also fundamental to the creation of a minor masterpiece. If it’s okay to admit that the Stones were better back in the days of utter degeneracy, is it so wrong to hope that Lewis remains forever unhinged?
There are plenty of mental patients imbued with high-voltage lunatic intensity. What separates those on Depakote from those on world tour (besides, uh, musical skill) is self-assuredness. From track one, it’s apparent that Rubberneck has confidence to burn. The instrumental “Mexican Hairless” is a tiny hand grenade, its skittery, bassy undulations ratcheting the tension higher by the second. It catalyzes the far larger pyrotechnics of “Mister Love,” a series of razor-edged guitar notes slashing through a furiously churning backbeat. And whether Lewis is yowling like he’s on fire or mumbling like he was just strapped into a straightjacket, the tension is unabating.
The demented, slow-simmering meltdown is an underappreciated art. And it’s one at which Rubberneck excels. The album’s wildly-popular single, “Possum Kingdom,” is a prime example. It starts at a slow, swampy march, then Lisa Umbarger’s tight, hypnotic basswork is joined by droning guitars and deliciously sinister lyrics (“I’m not gonna lie / I’ll not be a gentleman / Behind the boathouse / I’ll show you my dark secret”). It’s a leisurely smolder that builds to a spectacular conflagration. It takes surprising effort NOT to crank it to 11 and scream along (“Doooooo you want to die? Doooooo you want to die?”). “Backslider” follows the same formula. While it’s slightly more subdued, its tale of tent-revival terror still gets under your skin. Were there an award for “Best Four-Minute Slice of Steadily-Escalating Insanity,” however, it would surely go to “Tyler,” which begins with a single wavering guitar note, a bit like an ambulance siren. It’s a distant presence behind Lewis’ hushed delivery and the song’’ slow shuffle. As the song grows faster and more intense, so does the siren. By the time this lurid little rape fantasy comes to an end, it seems like it’s directly outside your door, a droning harbinger of everything you fear.
Rubberneck offers a number of flat-out rockers, too. What better respite from “Tyler”’s sweaty anxiety than “Happyface”? It chugs to life and, like a possessed piece of machinery, shreds everything in its path. Lewis’ delivery is desperate, whiny and yet somehow completely authoritative. “Quitter” is the closest the album comes to a “normal” song (boy meets girl, girl shreds boy’s heart on a box grater). However, the screeching, hyperactive guitars and manic delivery make it a Toadies tune through and through.
While the album is free of total clunkers, Rubberneck’s lulls aren’t its strong points. “I Come From the Water” is a revved-up little homage to Darwin; it’s also uncharacteristically slight. And despite a towering, howling finish, “I Burn” is a little too drowsy and repetitive to really grab you. This disc isn’t all killer, no filler, but for a debut album, it comes damned close. The majority of tracks are strong -- and so’s the demented confidence with which the Toadies rip through ‘em. Rubberneck is enlivened by a finely-focused lunacy. Lewis never tames his rage -- but for eleven tracks, he manages to hop on its back and ride the hell out of it.