Review: Toad the Wet Sprocket – Coil

Coil, released in 1997, is the third in a series of 3 spectacular albums Toad the Set Sprocket released in the 90s. The other two, Fear and Dulcinea are more popular and just as good, but today I wanted to highlight this overlooked final album from the beloved and thoroughly missed California foursome.

After reaching the commercial success with singles such as “All I Want” “Walk on the Ocean” (from Fear), “Fall Down” (from Dulcinea) and “Good Intentions” (on Friends sound track — and eventually included in In Light Syrup, Toad tried to stretch out and started out producing Coil on their own. But apparently they hit some road blocks and brought in the trusted producer-partner, Gaving macKillop, who produced both Fear and Dulcinea, to help them wrap things up.

The result is an album which is not a radical departure from their predecessors, but with wider emotional range while retaining cohesion and consistency throughout — not an easy feat. While the album didn’t produce the hits the predecessors did (though “Come Down” was a modest success at charts), it’s not for the lack of great songs.

“Whatever I Fear,” “Come Down,” “Rings” form the rare 1-2-3 punch of fast and energetic openers. Toad was never known for being a rocker, (and always favored slow starters for their previous albums) but here they demonstrate that yearning to stretch in that direction. Elsewhere on the album, “Desire” and “Amensia” further enhance the impression of this being Toad equipped with distortion pedals. In particular, “Come Down” is an arena anthem that “All I Want” never was — it would have made a terrific show closer if they chose to go out on a bang instead of a whisper. “Amenesia,” arguably the heaviest song Toad has ever put up, features a wall of ultra-distorted guitars that match the emotional intensity of its lyrics.

On the other end of the emotional spectrum, “Don’t Fade” is somber and tragic, in the tradition of “Stories I Tell” and “Pray Your Gods” from Fear. They do this sort of heart-wrenching balladry very well, but this song has a dynamic range not found in the other songs mentioned. “Little Buddha,” augmented by expert string arrangement from amazing Van Dyke Parks (Beach Boys, Sheryl Crow, and U2’s “All I Want Is You”) goes into a territory that was only probed, and very awkwardly at that, by “Reincarnation Song” from Dulcinea. The surreal meditation on human suffering, this song has an inner drama that is fully realized in its restraint this time — this song could be a sound track for some bizarre art experiment or a back drop for a scene of horrifying war crimes.

And rest you miss the good, old Toad, there are songs that are quintessentially Toad. “Dam Would Break,” like “Walk on the Ocean,” has a sentiment that just can’t be reproduced by anyone other than the front man Glen Phillips. “Throw It All Away” appeals to the green, back-to-the-nature outlook that’s long been a trademark of Toad/Glen. “Little Man, Big Man” probes new sonic territory with some resonator guitars, but the question being asked falls in the familiar territory. “Crazy Life” and “All Things in Time” wrap up the collection in the sincere, intimate note that you come to expect and love.

Coil is an expanded Toad. While Fear was solid from the beginning to the end though somewhat one-dimensional, and Dulcinea more experimental but falling short toward the end, Coil succeeds by introducing new colors without losing their foundation and consistency. I am a rocker at heart with penchant for dark subject matters, so songs like “Amnesia” and “Little Buddha” were particularly welcome addition to the previously doe-eyed romanticism of Toad.

Unfortunately, Toad broke up following this album in 98, though the last few years they have resurfaced to play obligatory reunion shows, usually during summer. This is a pure speculation on my part, but I suspect it has more to do with demand and financial reward than creative resurgence, because apparently the lead man Phillips has refused overtures from the rest of the band to reunite the band fully. That said, I can’t say that Phillips himself has mounted a focused solo venture — his output seems sporadic and meandering at best — so I’d love to see Phillips embrace creative limitations of a band setting as a challenge instead of confinement and boldly resurrect Toad and continue his solo work. As great of a songwriter he is, this one man hasn’t been able to duplicate the synthesis of four individuals that made up Toad. Coil was a fine example of a band trying to stretch out without losing track of who they are. Since they clearly get along enough to go on the road for a few weeks per year, I can’t see why they can’t pick up where they left off and continue the journey with new songs.

Oh, I need to mention one bonus. The album’s cover art work by talented Dave McKean ranks among the most creative, artistic and expressive piece of work I’ve ever seen to grace a cover of an album. Its thoroughly realized rendering on the concept of “Coil” is a rewarding piece of art to immerse yourself into, on its own.