Tuesday, December 27, 2011

December 27: Toad The Wet Sprocket, "Walk On The Ocean"

Artist: Toad The Wet Sprocket
Song: "Walk On The Ocean"
Album: Fear
Year: 1991

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Though one can make a strong case for the idea that the first few years of the 1990's saw a massive downturn in the level of musicianship all across music, there were a number of bands that stand in clear contrast to this trend.  While the music groups were writing seemed to take a gritter, more direct approach, and the rise of "gangsta rap" certainly skews perception in terms of "content" within lyrics, the number of brilliantly talented bands was easily equal to that of any other point in history.  Yet in many cases, the groups that were truly pushing musical boundaries and setting the form for the next few years in music seemed to go relatively unnoticed, but their amazing melodies still ring strong to this day.  It was the fact that bands were finding new ways to blend together the slightly more aggressive mainstream sound with different aspects of the past decades of music that made this era so exciting, and few groups showed more sheer talent and creativity than Toad The Wet Sprocket.  Though they are often wrongly associated with the "Seattle Sound," Toad The Wet Sprocket were responsible for one of the most amazingly catching musical approaches, as the way that they fused together an often-acoustic, folk base with a clear love for hard rock was unlike any other band at the time.  Clearly pulling off this sound better than almost any other group in history, Toad The Wet Sprocket rarely sounded better than on their unforgettable 1991 single, "Walk On The Ocean."

As "Walk On The Ocean" begins, the mellow tones of the bands' ability are immediately apparent, and yet at the same time, it is obvious that the group has a sense of melody and musical drama far beyond that of any of their peers.  Yet while there is no question that the overall pace of the song is slower than what one would consider "rock," it is the mood of the song that places it into such a category.  It is the way that the acoustic guitars of Glen Phillips and Todd Nichols blend with bassist Dean Dinning that is so wonderfully unique, and the trio extract an astounding level of tension from this combination.  The bass is mixed far more to the front than on most songs, and it enables "Walk On The Ocean" to take on a lulling bounce that must be experienced firsthand to be properly appreciated.  However, it is when the band enters the bridge section of the song that their true talents shine brightest, as not only is the volume raised, but the way that additional instrumentation is added to the mix is nothing short of musical perfection.  Whether it is the suddenly present mandolin and accordion, or the other strings that simultaneously enter the track, "Walk On The Ocean" begins to take on an entirely new life.  The percussion from Randy Guss is where the cohesion of the song resides, and the overall level of almost somber mood that the band creates is unlike anything else in music history.

While his instrumental contributions to "Walk On The Ocean" cannot be overlooked, the reality is that the voice of Glen Phillips is not only the most captivating aspect of the song, but one of the finest of his entire generation.  In every note that he sings, there is a strength and presence that is far beyond that of almost all of his peers, and throughout "Walk On The Ocean," Phillips shows a massive vocal range.  Yet much like the music, it is the level of emotion that he puts behind every word which makes the song so unforgettable, and the fact that he sounds so sincere and honest on each note is what enables the song to still have so much impact to this day.  However, it is the fact that the lyrics to "Walk On The Ocean" seem to present a compliment to the music in terms of fullness and complexity that truly sets the song so far beyond almost any other single from that time period.  There is no question that the words stand as some of the finest in history, as Phillips seems to have spun a myriad of interpretations into these brilliant lyrics.  Though there is no question that the song represents a loss, the fact that this "loss" can be seen as so many different things is what enables each listener to make the song their "own," and one of the many reasons it has such a wide appeal.  This ability to be heard in such a wide range of meanings is rarely more accurate than when Phillips sings, "...and somebody told me that this is the place...where everything's better, everything's safe...," and the lyrics remain some of the most memorable from the entire decade.

Oddly enough, the entire Fear record represents a rather stark departure from the sound that Toad The Wet Sprocket had been making to that point.  This album was far more refined and overall musically accomplished, and they seem to have made a conscious effort to tone down the more "garage band" style of playing that can be found on their earlier records.  Though many would see this as a "bad" idea, the reality remains that this change allowed their undeniable musical talents to take a far more prominent place, and clearly this also led to a stronger concentration on the melodies and harmonies throughout their songs.  Furthermore, the fact that the band were able to take this slightly more mellow approach, yet sacrifice none of their unparalleled talents in terms of creating hooks and "pop" sounds is a testament to just what an exceptionally talented group they were, and all of these realities come together on every moment of "Walk On The Ocean."  Whether it is the soaring musical arrangements and the way that all of the instruments are able to work together in amazing harmony, or it is the unforgettable, if not hypnotic vocals from Phillips, rarely has this overall level of musical perfection been heard, and during the early 1990's, it was more absent than ever.  Yet even after more than two decades, the song still commands as much respect and attention as ever, and it is

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