Toad the Wet Sprocket is one of my all-time heroes. It’s hard to put into words what this band means to me, but one quality I admire in their music is relatability. There’s something about Toad’s music that connects to what life feels like. It’s that sense of “yeah, that’s how it feels” — relating to someone, knowing what s/he is going through as if it’s your own life, and in the process feeling connected, realizing that you are not alone to feel that way, experiencing a sense of community around the feeling. And they do so without being very literal with words. There’s poetic abstraction that leaves plenty of room for interpretation, coupled with subtly intricate band arrangements that keep you interested.
“All I Want” is perhaps their biggest hit from the 90s and the recording has aged incredibly well, losing none of its charm over 25 years later. Here I’m going to see what keeps this song so resonant even as years go by and we keep changing as people and listener.
Dm F C Am (x3)
F Am Bb
The song overall has smooth sound so you’d think there’s nothing extraordinary about the chords, and you would be right. Except there are small twists here and there that keep the song from sounding generic, too.
The song is in Am/C tonality, which is a very common key, but it transitions back and forth between minor and major harmonies to create a sense of drama. The verse starts out in Dm, which is an interesting chord to start on. In the key of A minor that is a minor iv, a weak sounding chord. It goes up to F major but then sink from there to C major and finally to A minor. So starting with an insecure chord then ending with another minor chord, the sequence underscores the feeling of insecurity. But in the final line of the verse it travels up from F to Am to Bb, and the Bb is a major VII chord in the key of C major, what I call the defiant chord. Resolving up from there to the major point of arrival, the C major chord to start the chorus, creates a big contrast between what sounded tentative and ambiguous before then.
If you look at the root note of each of those chords, you can also see that the motion outlines the same feelings, too. The directions of the notes’ movement build or deflate energy. D-F-C-A is made up of up-down-down motion, creating a let down, until the last line which goes F-A-Bb has up-up motions.
C Am Dm G
C Am Dm E F
But despite the triumphant arrival, the chorus doesn’t stay all happy either. From C major it goes to Am and Dm, arriving to G to set up the next line starting on C again. The second line moves through Am and Dm but then goes to E major, an out-of-key chord in C major but a common chord in A minor. It’s used to set up the return to the A minor chord — except it doesn’t, it plays a false cadence to F. The chorus harmony creates an atmosphere of bittersweet longing by going from major to minor, but then it gestures to have a tragic ending only to leave it open-ended by not really resolving that setup.
G Am G F
C G F
C G D F
The bridge section is the strongest and boldest of the song, mostly focusing on major chords like G, F and C, with only one stop at Am and then ending with D and F chords. The D major is a completely out-of-key chord this time, belonging neither to C major or A minor, injecting a fresh harmony unheard anywhere else in the song. It doesn’t sound completely out of place because it’s placed between G and F, because the D major chord has the note of F#, which sits between the preceding and following chords.
So if you look at this song as a fairly predictable song in the key of C, you are in for a few surprises.
Glen Phillips starts out singing the verse pretty low in his range, which is a classic songwriting technique: start low so you have some place to go when the tension builds up. The direction of the lines are consistent with the harmony underneath it: go up, then come down. It’s not a tuneful melody in that if you played the melody on an instrument the line’s not very interesting on its own. Which is common for Toad’s songs, though, as Glen’s speciality is his evocative, poetic lyrics, and untuneful melodies help draw attention to the words.
Then the melody goes up in range, even though we’re still on the verse progression. There’s a big jump in notes, too, drawing more attention this time to the melody itself. The contrast between the two halves of the verse is big enough that you don’t notice that you’re still in the verse harmony.
Chorus, on the other hand, is less tuneful than the pre-chorus section but it keeps your interest by utilizing a different classic move — a call and response. The call in this case is fairly static but harmonized, again thrusting the words to the center of attention. More melodic response still isn’t terribly tuneful, but it has more movement and helps set up the next call.
The bridge has the highest notes which force Glen to get a little raspy, matching the gesture of the chords underneath. The melodies repeat the gesture of making a big jump then coming down, creating a wave-like feel and gently settling back down to the ambivalent verse harmony for the guitar solo.
Toad’s persona is down-to-earth, understated and gently uplifting, but what gets overlooked is the vulnerability and darkness. Glen’s lyrics often straddle the perfect balance where you know what he’s talking about, but you can’t figure out the story or the situation. This approach makes it easy for the song to be applicable to many different situations.
“All I Want” is indeed gently uplifting, but the lyrics only hint at the underlying issues and never spells it out. What is clear is that the verse set up a state of conflict between two people, where a sense of separation stare at them, created and enforced by the main character’s fear of opening up and being honest. The chorus, on the other hand, is an admission that he desires a deep connection, of being close to the “you” person. “The evening” can be alluding to God, Universe or other higher beings, and while we have no idea what it’s saying, the musical gesture suggests it wants to affirm the character’s desire.
The bridge, with its forceful, dramatic delivery is a turning point, where the character seems to let go of whatever was holding him back. Then in the final chorus he takes in the closeness, at last arriving at the closeness he was wanting all along.
So there is clearly a story here, the character is changing in the course of the song. But while words are fairly plain they never really give away anything concrete, so the audience has to decipher and form an interpretation based on his/her personal experience and what we hear in the words.
This sort of understated approach is Toad’s strength and enduring appeal. Instead of spelling everything out or spoon-feeding the audience, it invites us to explore in its world and come to our own conclusions. It takes a bit of effort take in the song initially, but once you do this depth keeps the song from becoming tiring. It helps the song to remain relevant after 25+ years, because the songwriting is so mature.
If you listen to any of Glen’s solo material, you’ll notice that while nothing jumps out to your face, the presence of the rest of the band — Todd Nichols’ intricate guitars, Dean Dinning’s melodic bass and Randy Guss’ steady beats all come together to create a signature sound. When Glen’s playing on his own it just doesn’t sound like Toad, even when he’s playing Toad songs.
The song starts out with a simple drum beat, quite ordinary one at that. But then the verse starts right away, in an unexpected chord of D minor, so you get the sense that you’re jumping into the middle of a story without knowing how it started. It’s like watching the 2nd episode of a TV show without watching the pilot.
The 1st verse begins simply with acoustic guitar and bass on top of the drum beat, but note how buoyant the bass line is. At this point the melody, chords, nor drums are that interesting, so bass fills the void by taking an assertive role and holds the scene until the pre-chorus arrives with more ear-catching melodies and texture of the electric guitar.
As a texturist Todd Nichols’ talent is very under-appreciated. His parts perfectly support the harmony but subtly inject colorful notes at just the right amount to create a supplemental melodic content that really keep the song engaging. Listen to the interlude after the 1st chorus, before the 2nd verse arrives. That’s him playing what he plays during all other verses, but if you take out the vocal and focus on his part it’s actually melodic and interesting on its own.
There is an organ part in the background that’s filling up the space and making it all sound warm and fuzzy. During the guitar solo it reinforces the melody to make the line sound fat.
When you listen to how each member performs in a band, you can start to guess each of their personalities and how their roles interact with each other. Randy is a no-nonsense guy who has zero need to show off even when he has the spotlight. Dean is an assertive bassist who takes charge — notice how is bass playing seems to lead the band, staying just a hair ahead of the drum foundation. Todd is reserved but tasty, blending in the background, letting organ share his spotlight even during the solo.
Fear was a transformational album for the band in more than one ways, and Glen’s vocal delivery is one of the big changes from the previous album, Pale. He used to sing with deeper, darker tone, sporting a more brooding, downer persona. In Fear he introduced more brightness and raspiness to his voice, and the former delivers more uplift while the latter, more aggression. He simply commands a bigger emotional range now, and that range is what delivers the core feelings in this song. The low range of the verses have darker, weightier tone depicting vulnerability, but then in pre-chorus it moves up to describe visions of what he desires — affirmation. And he unleashes the highest and most aggressive notes in the bridge, forcefully proclaiming his boldest statements. Glen has a knack for carefully matching the right vocal range to the right words to the right vocal tone. I’m sure he’s doing it instinctively — as in, “this section needs to be about feeling fragile, I’ll write words to say that and sing in more a subdued way.” I don’t know if the words come first or the music in his songwriting, but he knows how to listen to his material and align different elements.
I am personally fond of recordings made in the 90s, because this was the last era of analog recordings. The most advanced technology was applied to capture and process sounds using electricity and tape, so to me it comes across like the best organic produce — not compromised and tainted like earlier recordings where the tools imparted more of their colors, but also without the harsh impersonal-ness of digital recordings.
Producer Gavin Mackillop is responsible for the classic Toad sound of the three most successful albums in the 90s, Fear, Dulcinea and Coil. He doesn’t pull any ear-catching production moves for the most part, letting the song and the band performance tell the story. But if you compare with the albums before and after this era, there’s an unmistakable signature sound.
One such example is the reverb. Reverb is critical in creating that sense of mystery in these recordings. Reverb was prominent in the earlier recordings as well, but there it created murky, swamp-like feel that washed out clarity. Here the reverb creates a good balance between intimacy and density, where you can hear everything clearly but still wrapped in the warm blanket of reverb to make it seem dark and cozy. If you’re curious, check out the later-era cuts like “The Moment” and “Architect of the Ruin” — these are recordings made with different people with vastly different equipment, but the reverb on these recordings are bright and slick, less intimate and mysterious than their 90’s sound.
The other thing about this era is that Mackillop was judicious with his use of compression. Compression is the technology that even out dynamics, or volume differences, so you hear everything in predictable, safe fashion. All popular music recordings feature a great deal of compression, but having too much of it can seem very artificial. Listen, for example, to the acoustic guitar tracks — they are panned to the sides and kind of blend in, with Glen’s strumming left to sound a bit uneven. Some of the strumming you hear clearer than others. In a lot of recordings the tracks are compressed enough so you hear everything at consistent volumes, but in real life there’s a great deal of volume variance. And leaving that variance in the recording creates a more life-like, honest feel to the proceedings.
And speaking of honesty, it’s a curious choice that this song doesn’t use a great deal of stereo width. Pretty much all the band is placed around the center, with the exception of the unobtrusive acoustic guitars which are panned somewhat to each side. When you spread instruments far left and right you create a bigger soundscape, but that can play against a sense of intimacy. This song sounds more personal and confessional because all the sounds come from the same place around the middle.
One part that sounds less “live” is the organ in the far background, creating a sense of depth behind the band. But it comes forward more during the bridge and particularly the solo, where it doubles Todd’s guitar solo, making the line sound unique and indistinguishable rather by tightly synchronizing and mixing the two voices. Todd’s always come across shier as a guitarist than he needs to be (he is critically important to the Toad sound — his contributions are greatly missed in Glen’s solo outings), I see this as an attempt to fill out the sound more because they felt Todd just playing the melody by himself wasn’t interesting enough. I argue that there are ways to make simple melody sound expressive and interesting (listen to Kurt Cobain guitar solos) but this production touch is effective in presenting the melody in a bold way without the typical abrasiveness of distorted electric guitar solos.
While nothing they do seem revolutionary or innovative, Toad still created a unique sound which was amply displayed in this hit single “All I Want.” Creativity comes in many different shapes and forms, but the important thing is to apply them in your music. From unexpectedly colorful chords to subtle mixing moves, care was taken to create an air of vulnerability, intimacy and uplift. In fact, it may be that judicious blending of varied emotions that makes their songs so rich and appealing after many listens. Songs with more singular, clearer emotional palette may come out stronger but can be tiring after a while. By sticking to their guns and delivering an evocative story in a unhurried manner, Toad create a timeless, enduring piece of music.