By Melissa Fossum
By Lauren Wise
By New Times
By Amanda Savage
By Jason P. Woodbury
By Troy Farah
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The band members need little prompting to recount the events of the past three years; they've lived with it long enough -- and been asked so many goddamned times, "When's the next album coming out?" -- that it's part of the dialogue, as inevitable as the English language. But the fact remains, all the legal and emotional wranglings not only changed the way the band made music, it also changed the music the band made. Rubberneck, with songs that dated back to old cassettes and EPs, has never been a particularly fun record to listen to; it's a bleak album, hard-charging but ultimately draining and even unpleasant. "Do you wanna die?" Lewis screamed, over and over, on the hit single, and by the end, it sounded like an excellent proposition -- suicide by stereo. But Hell Below/Stars Above is a kick -- anthemic but never bludgeoning, chaotic but never shapeless. You can almost hear Vogeler standing with one foot on the monitors; you can almost hear the audience shouting along to every word ("We're coming into your living room/We're crawling into your bed -- yeeeeaaaah").
It's the sound of a band let loose after years of being restrained, by a manager or a label or perhaps even itself. The Toadies have always thrived when they've felt backed into a corner; they need enemies, real or imagined. Feuding with the label is, for them, nothing new: Seven years ago, Interscope held up the release of Rubberneck and forced the band to tour with labelmates they despised (Bush, for starters); back then, it was the Toadies against the world. And while they resist that notion now, there's little doubt that the effects of recent events trickled down into the songs. There's no denying that Hell Below/Stars Above is the sound of release -- catharsis, at long last.
"I still believe for every action, there's a reaction, so sure, you can't help having some of the songs be a reaction to something that happened that either stirred something up or put us on a new path or a new direction," Umbarger says. "I don't know what would have happened if we hadn't parted ways with our manager. Would we have this great a record?"
"No," Lewis insists, "definitely not."
"I don't think so," Umbarger agrees.
"We were talking about that the other day," Lewis adds. "Part of our motivation -- not entirely, but part of it -- was to be able to go and take this record and this tour and what we're doing now and kinda wave it in front of people who've given us the finger in the past and go, 'Fuck you, man, you don't know what you're talking about.' That's for the people who've told us to quit or break up or whatever -- one big 'fuck you.' That's part of what drives me to just make this record rock."
"There's still angst behind it," Vogeler says. "It's just different."
"But I don't know if any of that got in there or not," Lewis admits. "I personally had decided to leave that all behind me and move along, because otherwise I would have a bunch of songs about how much managers suck and labels suck and all that other stuff, and nobody wants to hear me bitch about that, including myself."
Someone recently asked Lewis how he was going to feel if Hell Below/Stars Above didn't sell as well as Rubberneck; he's still galled by the inquiry, insisting that he should have responded with Reznicek's suggestion, "Well, how are you gonna feel if your wife gets cancer?" (To which Vogeler responds with a shocked, but amused, "Nice.") It's the ultimate "bullshit question," Lewis insists. "That's not a question. It's like some kind of damnation"; Umbarger calls it simply "a threat." Besides, the band figures it no longer has to worry about a sophomore jinx; after all, the second album was, essentially, made and discarded a couple of years ago. It's been so long between releases the band might even consider the new album a reintroduction -- pleased to meet you, again.
But that's not to say the band doesn't wonder about its place in the current marketplace; maybe it just doesn't care. After this long, sales are a moot point, something for the accountants at the label to worry about. The band only wants to be taken seriously (no more jokes about Boston, thank you) and to be heard. If it's no longer the Toadies against the world, it's at least the Toadies versus the music business that sought, for the longest time, to silence a band that cries havoc every time it steps in the studio or onstage. One gets the sense that, in the end, the Toadies were afraid of only one thing: being forgotten.
"I'm of the belief that if we can get it out, get people to listen to it, and get it across, then people will dig it," Lewis says of any, ahem, expectations. "That's all we need to do."
"There's no competition now," Reznicek says. "It doesn't seem like any bands play their own instruments, or if they do, they play them poorly and go, 'Yeeeeeaaaaah.' There's no singing. It's all rapping."