Toadies are probably the last band from the major-label grunge cash-grab you’d expect to still be operating in 2017. The Texas four-piece struck platinum with 1994’s Rubberneck, and its ubiquitous undead-goth twanger “Possum Kingdom” continues to age as well as its subject. It has, at the very least, cemented Toadies’ cult one-hit wonder status (although their ZZ Top-meets-Pixies riff rock transcends a lot of music from that period).
After dealing with label woes the band unceremoniously released the excellent and underrated Hell Below/Stars Above seven years after their debut to a barren rock wasteland where nü-metal ruled and nobody cared about the Toadies anymore. Another bout of inactivity followed before guitarist/vocalist Todd Lewis reemerged in 2008 with No Deliverance, a record that valiantly attempted to capture the old Toadies magick and mojo, but ended up too polished and too reliant on old tricks. That album and 2012’s Play.Rock.Music. both delivered Texas-slathered guitars, but the weirdness that permeated their first two records was muted.
Toadies’ latest, The Lower Side of Uptown, feels less tentative, with Lewis and co. rediscovering their dark streak in that stack of riffs. Opener “When I Die” slithers along like a sidewinder, while “Take Me Alive” simmers before exploding into some killer, red-hot boogie. Those make for a solid one-two punch, and set up some of the record’s darker moments in “Amen” and “Human Cannonball.” Producer Chris “Frenchie” Smith smartly wrings the guitars of reverb, allowing them to land direct hits, and Lewis’s vocals are as shredded as ever on “Broke Down Stupid” and “Polly Jean,” both of which rumble like tanks.
Toadies aren’t reinventing the wheel, but their ability to make powerful, meat-and-potatoes rock is nothing to sneeze at—hell, AC/DC made a four-decade career out of it (plus Lewis’s vocals remain a powerful weapon). Their cover of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ “I Put a Spell On You” is serviceable, but that along with “Keep Breathing” and “Echo” could’ve been trimmed to make the album leaner.
But the fact we’re even talking about Toadies in 2017 says something. They’ve often been wrongly lumped in with the rest of the glut of grunge-lite bands that poured onto the charts post-Nevermind. As it turns out, they were nothing but a rock band all along. And even as rock ’n’ roll continues to get nudged into the margins, the practitioners that continue to do it well will always remain relevant.