Some albums don't grow old gracefully, because they were never graceful to begin with. The Toadies' Rubberneck is rude, blasphemous, unstable, cathartic and possibly murderous, but graceful it is not. One of the angriest rock albums to be released by a Texas artist in the '90s, it is also (arguably) the most successful. And almost 20 years removed from its August 1994 release, it sounds as if it has hardly aged a day.
Rubberneck is an account of the personal experiences, first- or secondhand, of front man and principal songwriter Vaden Todd Lewis, who had been working in a record store on the west side of Fort Worth and started the Toadies with a couple of his co-workers. Aiming for a group along the same lines as the Sex Pistols, Pixies and Talking Heads — in other words, nervy, artful and perhaps a little snotty — Lewis cycled through several musicians, but drummer Mark "Rez" Reznicek is now the only other remaining member from the Toadies' formative days.
Though the band had been playing shows around the Metroplex for several years, by 1993 the music business's mania for all things Nirvanaesque had led it to north Texas, and they signed to Interscope after the label (then coming off big hits like Dr. Dre's The Chronic) got wind of their Pleather EP. Granted their choice of producers, the Toadies went with Rob Rothrock and Rob Schnapf, who would soon help Beck hatch another definitive '90s album, Mellow Gold. However, as Lewis explains in the 25-minute Internet documentary Dark Secrets — a film by current Toadies guitarist Clark Vogeler, who was not in the band during the making of Rubberneck — the Toadies enlisted Rothrock and Schnapf due to their work on Washington, D.C., post-hardcore band Wool's Budspawn album, because Lewis thought it had the sound closest to AC/DC's Back in Black he had ever heard.
Rubberneck is as loaded with juicy stories as it is jagged riffs and ZZ Top-style boogie; almost every song would make a vivid, if lurid, graphic novel. Topics include peeping Toms ("Tyler"), broken friendships ("Quitter"), evangelical Christianity ("I Come From the Water"), a creepy figure stalking a popular north Texas lake ("Possum Kingdom"), infuriatingly glib people ("Happyface"), the fickle D/FW music scene ("Mister Love") and more metaphysical matters ("Away"). But far and away one of the most pivotal songs on the album is "Backslider," in which Lewis confronts his strict religious upbringing with no small amount of spite.
"I think that a lot of the songs were his way of getting it out of his system," says Reznicek, Lewis's hotel roommate on the road back then, over the phone from a tour stop in Park City, Utah. "I never felt like he was going to murder me in my bed or anything like that."
Despite the album's choleric tone, Rubberneck was recorded in a cabin in the wooded mountains around Mendocino, California, which in Dark Secrets Reznicek likens to Jurassic Park. Today the soft-spoken drummer remembers the sessions as almost unnaturally peaceful except for his mom's heart surgery.
"I was on the phone constantly with my brothers and sisters, checking up on her, but the nearest airport was like a three- or four-hour drive away," he recalls. "I remember one of my sisters telling me that I should stay up there and finish that record."
Once it was released, Rubberneck took the better part of a year to pick up steam, but it did. By the late summer of 1995 and through the next 18 months or so, singles like "Possum Kingdom" (their breakthrough), "Tyler," "Backslider," "Away" and "I Come From the Water" had saturated alternative and rock radio. Some stations still have them in fairly regular rotation, but up until the album was released, the Toadies had never even been on a real tour.
"We all had jobs and just couldn't afford to, you know, take off in a van around the country for eight weeks or whatever," Reznicek recalls. "That was really our main goal for getting that record out; we could tour and actually live that life for however long it lasts, and then go back to our jobs."
Instead the Toadies were on the road almost nonstop from the fall of 1994 through most of 1996, as Rubberneck was certified Gold in December 1995 and Platinum a year later. Because "it wasn't like we were sitting there watching the charts," an invitation to play Jon Stewart's old late-night MTV talk show — long, long before he took over The Daily Show — was one of the band's first hints that Rubberneck might be taking off. When the network made the "Possum Kingdom" video a "Buzz Clip," videos that would air about once an hour, that was another clue. Then, while opening for the Red Hot Chili Peppers at Chicago's United Center, Reznicek caught a glimpse of himself on the arena's huge DiamondVision screen ("with a huge shit-eating grin") and knew things had really changed.
"It was unbelievable that it was happening to us," he says.
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But the Toadies' fortunes turned south after Rubberneck. They partied too much and clashed with Interscope after the label refused to release their follow-up, then known as Feeler. Even when the label did release 2001's Hell Below/Stars Above, it did little to promote it, and the Toadies broke up a few months later after bassist Lisa Umbarger left the band. Reznicek joined popular D/FW country band Eleven Hundred Springs for a while, but the Toadies reconvened (minus Umbarger) for a 2006 St. Patrick's Day show in Dallas and have now released three albums in five years, including a slightly reworked version of Feeler in 2010 and last year's excellent Play. Rock. Music.
But even with all the Rubberneck anniversary hoopla — their current label, Kirtland Records, reissued the record with several bonus tracks earlier this year — a new album is due this fall. Reznicek admits the Toadies have enjoyed their current tour playing the album in its entirety, thanks to the higher profile it's given them again.
"Getting back out there and showing people that we're still viable, we're still a band, we still rock hard, that's all good stuff," he says. "Hopefully it'll help people realize that we're still putting out new music and still at it."
The Toadies play House of Blues Friday, May 9, with special guests Supersuckers and Battleme. Doors open at 7 p.m.