Toad the Wet Sprocket wants you to know they're happy. On "New Constellation," their first studio album in 16 years (and also their only album named after a song, not counting their best-of compilation "P.S.: A Toad Retrospective," and I don't), Glen Phillips, the lead singer/rhythm guitarist/main songwriter sings about happy accidents, love lost but then quickly regained, and just plain love of everything. (The chorus of the title track, which was once featured on the website of "Rolling Stone," affirms, "Declare my love to all creation!") Even on the country-tinged "California Wasted," when he sings, "I still make the same mistakes," he sounds downright enthusiastic. And unlike their last studio album, "Coil," which featured a song with the line, "Life is suffering," there's actually a song on "New Constellation" titled "Life Is Beautiful," sung and cowritten by lead guitarist Todd Nichols. Has the past decade and a half really been that kind to the band? This, of course, isn't necessarily a bad thing. Most of the songs feature a sunny pop sheen reminiscent of their home state's weather, and it's difficult to get any of the melodies out of your head, even the ones that aren't as rewarding. The only "bummer" track, if you can call it that, is the final one. Continuing their tradition of slower than usual songs to close out their albums, "Enough" groggily complains, "The day is short/The task is great/and I am idle." But let's get down to brass tacks: Most Toad fans want to know, "Is the new album any good?" I would say it's surprisingly good, at least better than their first two albums, "Bread and Circus" and "Pale," though that might not be saying much. It's not as good as their classic albums, "Fear" and "Dulcinea," where all those '90s radio mainstays such as "All I Want" and "Fall Down" sprang from, but I wasn't expecting it to be. I'm still undecided if it's better than "Coil," though the songs are definitely happier. It seems that after all this time, Glen and the boys haven't lost their touch. "I'll Bet on You" and "Get What You Want" are two of the best songs the band has ever written (I should know; I own all their albums and even some unreleased tracks), and had this still been the mid-'90s, you would hear these gems on constant rotation on your favorite radio station, unlike the unfortunate, ubiquitous Autotuned pop wonders of today's scene. Likewise, the title track and "The Moment," which I heard the band preview live 2 years ago, are equally catchy but still backed by lyrical resonance: "Every door you don't kick open/there's a million more to try." These are hallmarks of the best Toad tracks. The album also boasts a few heartstring-pulling ballads; "The Golden Age" and "Last to Fall" are worthy of their best, including "Crowing" and "Windmills." Still, the album isn't perfect. "Rare Bird" features a melancholy guitar intro that's a little too reminiscent of "Chile" from their "Pale" album, and "The Eye" is probably the worst track in the bunch, suffering from such cheesy lyrics as, "If love is a hurricane/you are the eye." Then, in case you didn't hear him the first time, Phillips again shouts, "You are the eye!!" We get it, Glen. Weather metaphor. Since I was a Kickstarter funder, not only did I get the album early, I was also rewarded with four bonus tracks, all of them as good as the ones on the official album (and, in the case of "The Eye," better). "Finally Fading," the last bonus song, is actually a remake of Phillips' solo recording off his very Toad-esque "Winter Pays for Summer," his best solo album and the only one that sounds like his Toad heyday. If anything, his lyrics are even truer today: "And the voices trailing doubt/are finally fading out." Whether their upcoming album, set to be officially released on October 15th, is a top seller or doesn't move any units, it doesn't really seem to matter; Toad is in a good place now, both musically and emotionally. That's reason enough for music fans everywhere to rejoice.
Michael Perone has written for The Baltimore Sun, Baltimore City Paper, The Island Ear (now titled Long Island Press), and The Long Island Voice, a short-lived spinoff of The Village Voice. He currently works as an Editor in Manhattan. And he still thinks Michael Keaton was the best Batman.