Scrunged: Toadies’ Possum Kingdom
Scrunge (second-rate rip-off grunge) is a largely forgotten genre, and every few weeks I’m going to examine a scrunge act or two and see if they deserve a second chance. Today’s band: The Toadies.
One thing about grunge that most scrunge acts seemed to miss the point on was that a lot of it was really dark and creepy in a menacing way. Nirvana frequently sang from the point of view of serial killers and rapists. Soundgarden’s metal influences frequently came to life with nefarious tracks like “Gun,” and of course there was the entire Alice In Chains discography, with its unhealthy focus on heroin and the joys that come with it. Shit, even Pearl Jam would often dive into the deep end of the disturbing with tracks about child abuse, incest, and murder.
You didn’t see Bush do shit like that. STP did on occasion with songs like “Sex Type Thing,” but they had too many love songs to really be all that down in the dumps. Sometimes Paw came close with their debut album, but while they nailed the mood of grunge, that was about all they got right.
No, the only scrunge act that really hit grunge’s darkside was The Toadies.
Makes sense, they are from Texas after all.
The Toadies’ debut Rubberneck came out in 1994, but they actually formed in 1989, well before Nirvana and their ilk were making waves on the national scene. So, just like many of the other above-average scrunge acts, the Toadies were rocking their own unique sound well before it had any chance of becoming commercially viable. It just happens to sound a hell of a lot like Nirvana because both bands were drawing inspiration from the same source: The Pixies. The only difference between the two is that the Toadies did it a hell of a lot better.
The band’s breakthrough hit “Possum Kingdom” is a billion times more a Pixies song than “Smells Like Teen Spirit” could ever hope to be. Both maintain the quiet-loud-quiet dynamic that The Pixies mastered, but the Toadies do it in a much cleaner fashion – their guitars lack the layers of feedback and distortion that drench “Teen Spirit,” and then there’s the matter of the lyrics, which both make sense and are understandable, two marks of The Pixies that Nirvana were lacking.
In the 20+ years since its original release, “Possum Kingdom” has become a honest-to-god alternative rock classic, one that’s still played on the radio on a weekly basis. A five-minute song sung from the point of view of a potential serial-killer/vampire/cultist in which he promises to take you “behind the bathhouse” and show you his dark secret. A song with a pre-chorus that consists of nothing but the lead singer screaming “do you wanna die?” Somehow that song became a hit single and a radio staple for decades on end.
The 90s were fucking weird.
And in case your only experience with the Toadies is “Possum Kingdom” (and let’s be honest, it probably is), make no mistake, it’s not some thematic anomaly or freakish exception. Rubberneck is a fucked up record full of fucked up songs about fucked up people doing fucked up things. There’s the ode to broken relationships “Mister Love.” “Backslider,” the creepiest song about a literal baptism that you’ll ever hear. “Quitter,” a breakup song in which it really sounds like its about a man murdering, or at the very least utterly terrifying, his ex. “Tyler,” where the singer takes the role of a stalker rapist breaking into a woman’s house. “Happyface,” another break-up song where murder seems like a solution. “Velvet,” which consists mostly of two lines: “you hurt me you fuck” and “you hurt me you cunt.” And the album closes with “I Burn,” a narrative from the point of view of a man burning himself to death. I didn’t mention “Away” or “I Come From The Water” only because I can’t parse their actual meanings. I’m sure they’re fucked up too.
Did I mention that I really love this record? Like, a lot? It’d probably make my top 10 albums of the 1990s.
Lyrical themes aside, the album just sounds great. I read AllMusic’s all-too-brief review of the album, where they dismiss it as a “streamlined version of The Pixies.” First of all, I fail to see how that could possibly be a bad thing, and secondly, it’s not entirely true. Yes, the Toadies lack the experimental nature of their idols, but taking the decidedly left-of-the-dial sound of The Pixies and turning it into something radio friendly, all while delivering some of the most dark and seedy lyrics imaginable, is not a small feat.
Even more impressive is that, while the album frequently dips into themes of violence against women, it’s never struck me as a misogynistic record (with maybe the exception of “Velvet”). It avoids fetishizing it darker components, and the violence, while omnipresent at times, is never condoned or sexualized, and that goes a long way to keep it out of the realm of the uncomfortable. Most of it is inferred as well, we’re spared the gorey details. Of course, personal mileage on this might vary, and if someone told me they didn’t like this album because of its darker thematic elements I would definitely not argue with them. This album should probably come with a half dozen trigger warnings.
“Possum Kingdom” was the breakout hit of Rubberneck, but the band did score several minor other hits on the alternative circuit, so why weren’t they able to carry their debut album’s momentum into at least one more noteworthy record?
Well, they certainly tried to. The band returned to the studio not soon after the release of Possum Kingdom to record their follow-up album, Feeler. They even completed the album entirely – only to see their label, Interscope Record, refuse to release it. The band then went back to the studio and recorded an entirely new album entitled Heaven Above/Hell Below. But by then it was 2001. The number one rock song of the year was by Lifehouse, and the alternative scene had moved onto nu-metal and rap-rock. In that bi-polar pop landscape there was no room for a band like the Toadies.
To top it all off, Heaven Above/Hell Below just isn’t that great of a record, and certainly falls into the curse of the sophomore slump. At times, it feels like it tries too hard to recapture the dark edge of Rubberneck, without the restraint. Songs like “Jigsaw Girl” which tell the lovely story about a man who chops up his girlfriend into little pieces in his apartment, go a bit too far into the macabre. The band broke up not soon after its release.
However! In 2008 the group reformed and released No Deliverance. And in an against-all-odds shocker, it’s actually a damn fine record. And keeping with the fine tradition of Rubberneck, more than a couple of the songs are about the horribleness of everything. They went onto re-record their aborted album Feeler, releasing it in 2010, where it even got some good reviews.
In 2012 they released their fifth album, Play.Rock.Music, and continue to tour to this day. Like them or not, give them credit; while a lot of bands of their era are happy to play old songs and tour the nostalgia circuit, the Toadies are still recording new music and trying new things some 25 years into their existence. They even sometimes go outside of their comfort zone, like in 2011, when they recorded a cover of LCD Soundsystem’s “Someone Great,” which I think is superior to the original version as it’s performed by an actual singer.
The Toadies are a one-hit wonder. A fact they’ll plainly admit. When I saw them live at Lollapalooza in 2008, they introduced themselves before playing “Possum Kingdom” by dubbing themselves “that one band who does this one.” And while I can’t imagine that they ever could have had the success of Nirvana, STP or even Bush, I feel like they certainly deserve more than what they got. Their new stuff is shockingly good, and Rubberneck remains a fantastic record that has held up a hell of a lot better than damn near anything else from that year.
At least they can take comfort in the fact that “Possum Kingdom” is probably playing on the radio at this very minute somewhere in America.