Toy Matinee

Toy Matinee

Reprise Records, 1990

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg


Iconic albums are always problematic to review; no matter what you say, someone’s going to be pissed. The fans who’ve put the album on a pedestal will react with scorn if you include even mild criticism, and the contrarians who reflexively dis anything that other people like will call you soft if you fail to take a sledgehammer to it. You might expect this dynamic to be different if the album in question is a cult classic rather than a platinum seller, but all I can tell you is: not in my experience.

Which brings us to Toy Matinee, a one-and-done group whose sole self-titled 1990 album remains unknown to the average music listener, but is viewed as a neglected masterpiece by a small, devoted cadre of fans. I fall into neither camp—so, yeah, thoughts and prayers.

Toy Matinee frontman Kevin Gilbert is perhaps best known today for his central role in the long-running controversy surrounding the early ’90s musical collective that he participated in at LA producer Bill Bottrell’s studio, a series of friendly songwriting and jam sessions that became known as the Tuesday Night Music Club. As in, the group that claimed that club member Sheryl Crow’s 1993 debut album of the same name was as much their work as hers, or at least that they were due more credit and compensation than they received for their roles in it. (And that’s honestly all I want to hear about that particular subject ever again from anyone who wasn’t in the room for the sessions in question.)

Two years prior to the Tuesday Night scene taking shape, singer-songwriter-multi-instrumentalist Gilbert, bassist Guy Pratt, guitarist Tim Pierce, and drummer Brian MacLeod were finishing up session work with keyboardist/producer Patrick Leonard on Madonna’s 1990 album I’m Breathless when the five started talking about forming a band of their own. Ultimately only Gilbert and Leonard signed on as band members, though by then Pratt had co-written four of the tracks that made the resulting album, and all five players are featured on Toy Matinee. The fact that this creative, passionate and often entertaining album ended up being a one-shot, fronted by an iconoclastic artist who subsequently became embroiled in controversy and died young, has over time lent it a “cult masterpiece by tragic figure” veneer of unassailibility (shades of Jeff Buckley).my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

Our job, then, is to cast aside the legend, with all its trappings and trapdoors, and just listen.

Toy Matinee presents a clever, musical, and often heady meld of XTC-ish quirky pop-rock and more explicitly progressive fare. Not Yes-and-Genesis-style prog, though; more like Zappa-and-Beefheart, as in, a commitment to making the unexpected choice just because you can.

The closest Toy Matinee travels to the mainstream is on opener and lead single “Last Plane Out,” complete with ringing, radio-friendly chorus, whose big hooks anchor an otherwise somewhat meandering five-minute-plus philosophical number. Next up, the Dali tribute “Turn It On Salvador” again features a rather affected lead vocal from Gilbert, this time over choppy, chunky, endlessly playful guitar from him and Pierce. It’s clever, and fun, and features Julian Lennon on harmony vocals, but is otherwise resolutely off-kilter (one might even say Daliesque) in its steadily transforming structure and exotic guitar gymnastics. Oh, and it closes out with a clarinet trio…!

Next, they tighten things up for “Things She Said,” a serious-minded number that opens with layered acoustic textures before accelerating into a punchy chorus. The addition of tambourine adds subtle heft to the chorus hook while illustrating how meticulous Leonard and Gilbert were about arrangements. “Remember My Name” is where another point of comparison crops up, sounding like a lost Tears For Fears number with its airy backbeat, percussive piano, and slightly squirrelly, skronky guitar.

The fact that Leonard contributed keyboards and songwriting to the 1987 Pink Floyd album A Momentary Lapse Of Reason feels relevant when title track “The Toy Matinee” arrives awash in gentle electric piano, airy vocals, and oh-so-Gilmouresque reverbed guitar, pinpointing the elusive nexus between melancholy and macabre. By contrast, the upbeat “Queen Of Misery” feels more like So-era Peter Gabriel with its densely layered instrumental and vocal arrangements and tidal push and pull.

Toy Matinee veers back closer to the intersection of XTC and Tears For Fears with the elaborate, at times rather precious “The Ballad Of Jenny Ledge”; it feels like it wants to be an epic story-song, but the big melodic number at its core wobbles under the weight of an overcomplicated arrangement. Penultimate track “There Was A Little Boy” is both a highlight and genuinely disturbing, a boldface, possibly autobiographical story-song about childhood abuse and parental rejection. Regardless of how much truth it contains, it’s a gripping, haunting tale of “the sickness of a world whose eyes are blind.” Mostly acoustic closer “We Always Come Home” has a bit of a campfire singalong sway to it, a relatively reassuring finale after its harrowing predecessor.

Overall, Toy Matinee is a solid effort, rich with sharp playing and clever arrangements. That said, songwriting turns out to be somewhat of a soft spot; the dizzying mish-mash of ideas captured on these tracks sometimes gels and sometimes founders. In the end, Toy Matinee is an album well worth seeking out, as long as you temper your expectations; it’s consistently interesting and occasionally brilliant work even if, to these ears, it comes up somewhat short of its reputation.

Rating: B

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