You know, I’ve written an awful lot of stuff here over the past few years. Some posts I sweat over and get no comments; some stuff I give barely a thought, and a big discussion ensues. But I don’t think I have ever written something that has surprised me as much as that damn Toto Guide. Really, I didn’t think anybody would ever read it — I was just desperate for a subject that week, and I happen to have spent many hours listening to Toto albums, so it was a perfectly shameful fit.
But shit, man, I still get comments and mail on that dumb thing — everything from compliments to death threats and all points in between. Clearly, years of critical abuse have inflamed the Toto-loving masses; I thought my Guide was pretty even-handed, but no one else seems to agree. People who hate Toto accuse me of going too easy on the band, and the fans think I’m a Ramones-loving Hilburn clone.
So, obviously, reviewing the new Toto album is a game I can’t win.
Here I go anyway.
The good stuff first. On Falling In Between, the band’s eleventh studio album of original material, and first since 1999’s Mindfields, Toto sounds better than it has in probably two decades or more — the album’s finer moments (and there are more than a few) are full of energy, focus, and the sort of stretchy cohesion that comes from longevity. I’m one of the few who thought that Bobby Kimball’s reunion with the band posed as many problems as it solved, but in the seven years since its release, Toto seems to have figured out its — to use a corporate term for a “corporate rock” band — best practices.
For one thing, they’ve pared down this album’s ten songs to something like their bare essentials; no, this isn’t Toto acoustic, but neither is it plagued with the length issues that bogged down Mindfields and Tambu. From the first note, the listener gets the feeling that these arrangements were labored over, in the best possible way. Nothing meanders — in fact, one song, “Simple Life,” cuts out after only 2:22.
More important than how long the songs are, though, is what they’re made of. I don’t think a single person with functioning ears on the planet would ever argue the notion that the guys in Toto can flat-out play; their technical competence has never been at issue. However, I don’t think they’ve ever shown such a consistent attention to detail when it comes to an album’s arrangements. People who appreciate the craft of the songwriter and the studio cat — who understand not only music’s heart, but its brain — will flip head over heels for the dozens of shifts and changes in these songs.
Often, however, when Toto succeeded in assembling something musically intricate or adventurous, they were criticized for sucking all the air out of the room when they recorded it. I don’t think any sane person could really describe any of Toto’s studio albums, with the possible exception of Kingdom of Desire, as having anything like an organic feel; everything was sanded, polished, and shellacked. Some people like their music that way, and I don’t begrudge them their personal taste — but for the rest of us, listening to it can be seriously unfulfilling.
So Falling In Between is sort of a funny beast. All the familiar Toto touches are there, and then some; the band now has three ace keyboard players, one hot-shit guitarist, one amazing drummer, one underrated bassist, and three lead singers. Longtime Toto fans will hear a ton of bits that will make them smile and nod their heads. Insofar as there’s a classic Toto sound, it’s here, in spades. And yet…and yet. Falling is absolutely the most down-to-earth, relaxed, and, yes, even organic-sounding album Toto has ever recorded. They actually sound, for most of the record, like a group of guys in a studio. There’s a palpable sense of fun here; fun and musical telepathy, which is a nice combination when you can get it.
It also helps that Toto appears to have lost absolutely any interest in selling records — and I mean that in a good way. They’re just playing to their strengths now; those strengths don’t get you on the charts anymore, and the band seems to be at peace with that. For fans who were hoping for another “Pamela,” this might be an unwelcome development. For everyone else, it’s actually pretty easy on the ears.
Now, for all of that, will I be playing this disc in heavy rotation months from now? Or even tomorrow? Probably not. Part of it is that the album starts off so well that it can’t help but lose steam; the title track (download) is a fire-breathing, saw-toothed monster of a song that easily ranks among the band’s finest work ever (and also proves that Bobby Kimball, porn ’stache and all, can rock on occasion). It’s the kind of song that begs to be played at full volume. If the rest of Falling In Between maintained that level of creative intensity, I’d be writing a different review. As it is, though, while I can appreciate the sound mechanics and compositional depth of the rest of the album, it pales in comparison. It’s still an impressively consistent album — the only true low point is “Hooked” (download), which has lyrics that resemble a Nancy Reagan-era PSA — but not a home run. Call it a triple.
It won’t win over any unbelievers. But for the faithful, it should be absolute bliss, and that’s what really counts at this stage in the game for Toto. They should be applauded for recognizing the important stuff and letting the rest of it disappear.