Thursday, 14 August 2014

Toadies - Rubberneck (1994)

This apparently enjoyed moderate success in its day, and the band are still very much in existence and doing fine, but they had zero impact in England so far as I was aware and are therefore new to me; so if I appear to be praising an amazing new discovery that everyone else in the universe was already bored of by 1995, then sorry...

I recall Rubberneck quite well as having been heavily promoted in the advertising for Sam Goody record stores in various comics I was reading back then, mostly Vertigo titles such as Preacher in which Garth Ennis bravely cracked ground-breaking jokes about inbred rednecks of the southern states with names like Otis and Joe Bob, which no-one had ever done before. Garth Ennis invented it, you see. It was a whole new kind of storytelling. Anyway, design snob that I am, I still maintain that this album has one of the worst covers I've ever seen. It's not so much the third year art project illustration as the illustration in somehow unsettling combination with the swirly dollar store font of the title achieving the queasy effect of comic sans without actually being comic sans. Rubberneck somehow managed to look bad in the pages of the already excruciating Preacher, a comic in the context of which advertising for albums by even Bon Jovi and Poison packed a certain alluring punch. It spoke to me of fifteenth generation Nirvana tribute acts signed by increasingly desperate major labels; and then twenty years later I'm living in America, stood in a branch of CD & DVD Exchange with a copy of this thing in my hand. Three dollars doesn't seem much, and there's no way it can be as bad as the cover.

Astonishingly, not only is it not bad, but it's actually very, very good. Rubberneck is sufficiently of its time to at least support the hunch that Toadies were probably signed on the strength of check shirts and fuzz guitar, but other than that, they piss all over just about every other band to briefly benefit from the Seattle gold rush. For a start, they sound somehow definitively Texan, at least to me, a sort of mashed up Pixies and Lynyrd Skynyrd hybrid, or maybe what you would get if you gave King Crimson mullets and had them drive around the back roads of Bexar County for a while in a battered El Camino. Amongst such messy comparisons, the influence of the Pixies seems strongest with some sort of rockabilly element tucked away just beneath the drum stool, but Rubberneck has enough of its own sound to justify repeat listening; and not least because there's not a dud track on here. They're all growers.

Lyrically, there's nothing so crude or crappy as Garth Ennis bluntly recycling John Boorman's Deliverance with added Tarantino, but it's that same quiet rural horror, the kind of thing Tad used to do so well, here with the dark shadow of the Baptist church cast across secluded creeks full of snakes and prickly pear cacti; but crucially it does all this with soul, and with poetry, and without pulling the obvious scary faces.

As they've just released a twentieth anniversary edition of this album, it probably doesn't really qualify as a lost classic; and having discovered that Toadies now have their own brand of beer named Rubberneck Red, I realise I may simply be waving an REO Speedwagon album in your face whilst whining there's this rilly 'tastic band, mkay, you probably won't have heard of them, but I have; but does it really matter?

Rubberneck sports the worst album cover this side of Ziggy Byfield and the Blackheart Band - not even mentioning the opportunity missed with the reissue - but this is nevertheless one hell of a disc, and indispensable listening for anyone who appreciates unsettling rural tales set to tight, crunchy guitar riffage.

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