Thursday, May 13, 2004

The Toasters - This Gun For Hire. A brave experiment. Gone so wrong.

I once had a good discussion with Jon McCain (then Toasters drummer) about this album, he insisted - in all seriousness - that it was the best Toasters album (I think this was circa "Hard Band Fe Dead", maybe a little before that album). After challenging him a bit he admitted they were trying for a commercial angle and maybe missed their core audience a bit. He still thought it was a solid album. Anyway every couple years I pull out this album and re-evaluate it - just to see if it has improved with age. And here's my shocking revelation:

it did.

TGFH is really the summation of an epoch of ska. A time when bands experimented not with "play fast, play punk", but with other genres. Branching out the sound in search of an identity. The album encompasses the smooth pop-ska that just predated the 3rd Wave explosion. It contains classic "fast ska" cuts like the live version of "East Side Beat", it touches on Soca with "Paralyzed". It edges into a bold Lovers Rock croon with "Don't Say Forever" (for those who never had a chance to see Cashew Miles perform with the band, he really had the best stage presence of any of their vocalists). "Don't Say Forever" may be too bold in it's use of the Lovers Rock sound, most ska kids simply aren't familiar with artists like Sandra Cross or Kofi - they simply don't appreciate the super sugary pop croon that Lovers Rock is. The second side opens with "Choose" in which Cashew gets a chance to belt out an upbeat modern R&B vocal. And who can forget the pinnacle of the album, in fact in what may be the pinnacle of the Toasters recorded career "Roseanne". I mean, wow. Touching on the oh-so-brief "Skacid"/"Acid-Ska" craze of the late 80s it is a perfect blend of over the top sweetened early 90s dance, pop oriented "rap", and a poppy perversion of the ska sound. Truly breathtaking and far ahead of its time. I mean, honestly, can anyone of you not smile simply thinking about the song in your head? Putting the record on the turntable I shake with excited glee at hearing the perfect overproduction. There is indeed, nothing wrong with this here groove. They're the Toasters and they jam on the Roseanne. No really the song is catchy. Stupid, insipid, and catchy. Fantastic pop. In fact the weakest parts of the album are the songs that sound like traditional Toasters songs (such as "Lies", which is almost saved by Cashew's soul overtures, but in the end it can't overcome the fact that it's an old Toasters song.)

I started this out as a bit of a joke, but as I listened to the album - a few years more mature and more knowledgeable about other genres than when I bought it - I can see what Jon was saying. In the end I have to say he was right. It really is, no joke, no lie, not only a good Toasters album, but it's also a decent pop album.

Okay, so maybe that's a slightly overly enthusiastic review of the album, in truth it is a flawed album. It seems to me to be a transition record, they didn't seem to know what direction they were headed in so what came out is a bit of a mess. My interpretation of what happened was a band looking at their future. Would they "grow up", mature, into a band that appealed to an older audience who may not have the patience to hear the same sounds year after year? Would they expand their sound into new areas and experiment with new ideas progressing into band like...The Police (not that I'm a fan of them, but for some reason they come to mind when I think of TGFH) or would they stick with tried-and-true play the same music that they had been playing since day one. It's too bad that an overly slick production, poor lyrics, and a changing audience stifled this evolution in The Toasters. I'm curious as to what they could of done had they stuck with this phase. TGFH was received so poorly that I'm not sure the band ever recovered. Instead, as we all know, Bucket returned with an album which signaled a return to the status quo.

To my ears they've been releasing the same album ever since New York Fever. I can't knock it, they're successful, but makes it difficult to sustain a long term fan base. Every couple years a new set of ears comes along and discovers the Toasters and buys the newest records. Older people come out to the concerts on a nostalgia trip, even if few older songs are played the new songs do not deviate too far from the expectation, so most everyone leaves satisfied. However little will compel the old listener to pick up the new albums, or to follow the band with much interest. Instead of steadily building a larger and larger fan base, they seem stuck marketing to a particular age group. Every few years brings along a new class of high school and college kids to sustain the band for another round of the same old thing.

Now I know the above will be taken as a negative criticism, Bucket would most likely not be happy and have quite a few issues to raise with me, but it's not really meant that way. Really it's more a statement of "what if...". What if the Toasters pursued the ideas in TGFH a little more? Most likely there would be no Toasters today, the bigger world of "adult contemporary" is far tougher on bands than the insular ska scene is. They could have ended up where Urban Blight did, a band who explored a similar sound after their ska heyday, and where did Urban Blight end up you ask? Well I don't know, and that's the point. They failed, they disappeared (heck, they could still be slogging away in complete obscurity!). So it is very likely that Bucket made the right choice for himself. He stuck to the safe and steady and has done quite well.

Still, I'm curious as to where they could have headed...