Got Legs

The story's a modern-rock fable, as pedestrian by now as the playlist at the Buzz: Regionally promising band self-releases good stuff, gets noticed, jumps to a major label, releases a debut with, suddenly, inexplicably, almost zero backing from a support staff that's already busy losing interest in its next next big thing, gets buffeted in the backwash of a mega-merger, sinks into a legal skirmish with its manager and drops off the map for almost seven years. Buh-bye.

The only difference between that tired story and the one Dallas's Toadies have to tell is that while no one was watching, that long-ignored debut Rubberneck spat out a compellingly creepy pile of rock called "Possum Kingdom," which has been in ubiquitous rotation at modern rock stations, and in more than a few classic rock formats, ever since. In a genre more or less defined by its chronic disposability, "Possum Kingdom" may be the closest thing to ZZ Top's "La Grange" that post-Nirvana rock has produced.

And never mind the local charm of listening in as that mammoth hit -- endorsed by everyone from Beavis and Butt-Head to a chat room's worth of unclear-on-the-concept goths -- forced a generation of befuddled DJs to repeatedly announce the name of a Central Texas reservoir on the Brazos River… "Possum Kingdom" wasn't even the best track on Rubberneck. Just one of a half-dozen standouts on an album without a single track to inspire a hit of the skip button, the aggregate of which managed to breed AC/DC's stomp to the Pixies' askew-idity, dropping the litter deep in the deviant heart of a heretofore inarticulated Piney Woods of sexual threat.

Todd Lewis was gonna take you out behind the boathouse and show you his dark secret. Wanna come?

Turns out that the dark secret behind Todd Lewis's bug-eyed aggression may have been the fact that "low self-esteem is no foreign territory" to him.

"I've had all sorts of doubts about everything," says the guitarist and vocalist. "People are either stroking you or telling you you suck, and I can do that myself. I can tell myself I suck enough times to make me happy."

There's little but distracted industry mumble to report about the fact that the Toadies, or Interscope, or both, dropped the ball for nearly seven years in following up a platinum album, waiting until just a few days ago to service record stores with Hell Below / Stars Above.

Apparently it's been ready for a while -- Dallas Observer critic Zac Crain listened to it back in August 2000, and his story, rightly fluffing the disc, was mostly about what the hell might be taking so long. Hell Below / Stars Above had been scheduled for release, on and off, for three years, for chrissakes.

The answer, Lewis says, is just stuff. "Label stuff, management stuff, band stuff, just a whole slew of things that changed and happened."

Interscope, for one thing, got shook down in 1998 when parent company Seagram ingested PolyGram, and almost 200 bands got their walking papers. Manager Tom Bunch, former Butthole Surfer Svengali and known in the early '90s as the local alt-rock impresario behind The Vatican and TAB Productions, has reportedly sued the Toadies, which Lewis isn't talking about. And Rubberneck guitarist Darrel Herbert left and was replaced by Funland's Clark Vogeler.

Speed bumps all, but it's more fun to look for the sources of the delay in the music, and it's there if you're looking for it: Todd Lewis's almost debilitating self-consciousness in the wake of an unexpected (and perhaps, to Lewis's mind, undeserved) monster single.

There's a pounding chant of "get your head around it" in "Motivational," Lewis channeling the voice of a million fathers "motivating" challenged sons. In "Jigsaw Girl," Lewis yelps, "This is not the same world you live in," his isolationist accusation and fair warning and security blanket, a worthy successor to GNR's "Welcome to the jungle, baby." The first single, "Push the Hand," invites outsiders to "Feel that weight feel that weight pushing down / what the hell we stepping into now / gotta push that hand away gotta push that hand away," which really isn't that hard to read into.

Rubberneck, it seems, spun Lewis's head something fierce, and when you're the son of a preacher, as Lewis is, pop success, guilt and self-doubt walk hand in hand.

"Oh, man, when we put out 'Possum Kingdom' I thought, you know, they're going to put the record out and then we're going to go away. They're going to give us all this money, and when are they going to ask for it back? I can't afford this. So it's a little different experience than that record."

What's different is that in writing Rubberneck, pretty much alone, Lewis indulged a perfectly reasonable expectation that no one would ever have occasion to judge the product. He's lost that luxury now.

"There were several times when I just wondered what the hell I was gonna do, and that's when I couldn't write, because I felt like I needed to impress somebody or some kind of bullshit like that. And I personally can't create anything if I feel like I need to do something for somebody else. I have to do it totally self-centered where I'm making myself happy, and I can trick myself into thinking nobody's ever going to hear this."

Lewis cleared his head with ten solo days "breaking in the car" in the Permian Basin, maybe trying to clear his head of Rubberneck's swampy East Texisms with a dose of desert. It didn't work, and bully for that… There are plenty enough West Texasy troubadours in this state already.

Back in the swamp, "Heel" carries on the might-as-well trademark of "Possum Kingdom" -- its combination of kink and abject worship ("I'll show you some discipline, yes you will learn some respect….God I love you, you're so pretty…."). "Jigsaw Girl" is just one kill-your-girlfriend song too many in a glutted market, but it sure fits the mood. "You'll Come Down" carries a nifty bit of self-quotation with the riff from Rubberneck's "Away," and it's probably only coincidence that both songs are track six: two-thirds satanic or some such shit.

But what makes the Toadies such a great album band, never mind "Possum Kingdom," is sustained menace. Hell Below / Stars Above is draped in it, like Spanish moss on a dark night in a quarter-acre clearing in a forest of oaks so thick that you won't see your stalker until it's well and truly too late.

It feels like a Toadies record. It's that good.

But it's not the same record, and if the first dozen listens fail to reveal whatever lyrical new ground Lewis thinks he's covering, it's still easy to hear the difference elsewhere. Hell Below / Stars Above doesn't quite have the impeccable sense of hook that Rubberneck had, which should not be regarded as a complaint. The new one's more aggressive, punches harder. There are also understandably self-conscious attempts to stray from strength, to expand the proverbial artistic boundaries, some of which succeed. "Pressed Against the Sky," though, is just too damn slow, and the title track is a completely messed-up concert-closing rave-up that grafts bad Queen to bad gospel with indecipherable motive. Hope they had fun recording it.

This culling, one may notice, leaves nine of 12 tracks unscathed, which is pretty good odds in any game. The Toadies may, indeed, have only one trick. And? ZZ Top has one trick. AC/DC has one trick. It's a good trick, and not one -- clearly -- that just any band can pull: They rock.

And while it's too early to tell whether said rocking will bring the same sorts of rewards that "Possum Kingdom" dumptrucked on the band, it has already delivered a couple of sustaining benefits. It's made Todd Lewis feel a bit better about himself, for one thing, and it proves, to anyone who cares to hear, that Rubberneck was no fluke.

"Now," says Lewis, "since the record is done and I can listen to it, I don't feel any pressure, because I feel like it fucking smokes….It's good, I feel really proud of it….I think this record proves to us as a band that we have legs, as they say."

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Brad Tyer