It was my friend, Allison, who introduced me to Toad the Wet Sprocket. I can recall the hours we spent dissecting every little nuance of the music and lyrics as if it were yesterday, discussing the finer points of the melodrama that must have been behind the pen of a tune like “Nothing Is Alone.” I remember, just as vividly, the first time I caught the video for “Come Back Down” on MTV’s 120 Minutes.
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“Come Back Down” had the sort of maturity that betrayed the band’s youth — singer Glen Phillips was only 18 when the band wrote and recorded Pale. It was that youth that further endeared the band to a 15-year-old me. I mean, they were only a few years older than I was, and yet they wrote these painstakingly well-crafted tunes about drug addiction, domestic violence and love in terms that I did not quite understand yet.
Sadly, next to no one heard this record; it would be a year and eight months before the band would release its breakthrough record, Fear, and its sugarcoated single, “All I Want,” would become a mainstream radio hit. For the time being, Toad the Wet Sprocket was the little “college rock” band from Santa Barbara with the name that made absolutely no sense — these were the days before the Internet, you couldn’t just Google it to learn its Monty Python pedigree.
Pale has very little in the way of the lighthearted fare that the band’s namesake would suggest. From the intimate bedroom production of “Don’t Go Away” and “Torn,” complete with the creak of a door opening the track, to the midtempo rock of “Jam” and “Corporal Brown,” the album is rife with heartbreak and distress, mostly wrapped in stirring vocal harmonies and folk-rock informed melodies. It’s a record that begs to be listened to in its entirety, repeatedly. Sadly, the record has been out of print since 2001 — but not to fear, the band has announced that both Pale and their debut, Bread and Circus, will be get the 20th anniversary deluxe reissue treatment.
While Toad officially split up in 1998, following the release of their fifth studio album, Coil, they have reunited for a few dates each year since 2006. Glen Phillips has released three solo records, in addition to collaborating with bluegrass trio, Nickel Creek, for Mutual Admiration Society in 2000, and just this past year recorded with the Works Progress Administration. The remaining three members continued under the name Lapdog and released a couple of unremarkable records. While each of these endeavors retains some small tie back to Toad, it never quite captures the same spark, and only serves to make the 15-year-old in me yearn for a full-fledged reunion.