Apart from being a strong contender in the bands-named-after-Monty-Python-jokes rankings, Toad the Wet Sprocket are one of the 90s alternative rock acts that have aged best. Lead singer and barefoot performance enthusiast Glen Phillips is no small part of Toad’s sound, and he’s had success since as a solo artist, and in his Nickel Creek collaboration project Mutual Admiration Society. He’s an all-around well-regarded songsmith with the credits to prove it.
‘Swallowed By The New’, Phillips’ seventh solo release, stands on a melancholy bedrock. Phillips describes it as a break-up record; his usual soft-rock persuasions cast against the backdrop of the collapse of his marriage. But despite that dour description, ‘Swallowed’ is a surprisingly lucid affair.
Like much of Phillips’ solo work, it’s built on simple folk arrangements; the canvas on which Phillips pastes his lyrics. In true Toad style, Phillips opts for straightforward over complex. Uncluttered by lexiconic rambling, buoyed by an airy guitar-tone and carried with Phillips’ oaky lilt, the tracks take on an almost hymnal quality. Best demonstrated on the likes of ‘The Easy Ones’ or album-opener ‘Go’, Phillips gives us a selection of tender, easy-to-fall-into acoustic ballads, backed by subtle strings and warm, Knopfler-esque guitar noodling that embraces you like a winter blanket. The gentle solo on ‘Criminal Career’ is particularly soothing. A rocking-chair lullaby to play you into dreamland.
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That said, there’s nothing in these tracks to elevate them above the saturated soup of acoustic rock. Thankfully, ‘Swallowed’ has a host of stranger additions to acts as its stilts. ‘Leaving Oldtown’ stands the tallest, a bittersweet folk piece that makes use of a classical string quartet, with emotional ebbs and flows enough for a Broadway musical. Also worthy of note is the sinister bass-led ‘Unwritten’, which wouldn’t sound out of place in the desolate soundscape of The Walking Dead, and the fuzz-fest that is ‘Held Up’, with gritty blues guitar, Tom Waits percussion, and a chorus stolen from darkest Louisiana.
Despite a tendency to drift towards the schmaltzy, ‘Swallowed by the New’ is no run-of-the-mill soft-rock release. And despite the circumstances of its writing, it’s no pit of despair either. It’s not an album about break-up, so much as an album created to overcome a break up. It’s musical therapy at work, and that’s its finest feature. It’s experimental, excitable, and the catharsis leaks out of it like honey from an over-ambitious sandwich.
‘Swallowed By The New’ is available now from Umami Music