Once upon a time, Glen Phillips and his high school friends started a band and named it Toad the Wet Sprocket (after a "Monty Python" sketch).
Oddly enough, given the name choice, they were not in any way a "humorous" band. They recorded an album of thoughtful, introspective guitar-based songs and, with astonishing quickness, were signed to a major label to release it relatively untouched. Over the next couple of CDs, they evolved from high school garage band to a savvy pop force, charting hits like "Walk on the Ocean" and "All I Want." After a handful of albums, the band began to tire of the demands of big tours, and growing fame, and amicably put Toad to rest.
Phillips has since made solo records for small labels, and toured the country periodically as a solo acoustic act. This summer, Phillips is doing dual duty; he's touring on his own to promote a new solo CD, Mr. Lemons, and hooking up with his old mate for a few shows as Toad the Wet Sprocket.
Mr. Lemons is probably Phillips' quietest album, filled with personal and spiritual musing. While he's always had a penchant for writing songs with a spiritual bent, Mr. Lemons comes back to the theme again and again, albeit quietly. The opening track, "Everything But You" could be read as a love song or a hymn as he sings "Everything's a crutch/every-thing but you." It's probably the closest thing to a Toad song on the disc.
Focusing on easy strumming acoustic guitars and his earnest, confessional vocals, Phillips offers 11 songs perfect for soul-searching and contemplation.
"Thank You," a soul-felt duet with Garrison Starr about God, grows in vocal and instrumental intensity, with a hint of Eastern sitar, to a frenzy of emotion by its end. But most of the tracks are simple, easy-listening, head-nodders, allowing Phillips to stir both the mind and the soul with his always-insightful lyrics.
Later, in a sparse arrangement, with echoes of early '70s folksters like James Taylor, Phillips whisper-sings the enigmatic "Blind Sight."
He sings with intensity about the salvation of love in the head-nodding strums of "I Still Love You." The song is both sad and inspiring as he sings of lovers who see beyond each others' flaws.
He offers another track on a familiar theme for him — that of appreciating every moment in "Last Sunset." It's another duet with Starr.
In an interesting twist, on this disc he and Starr cover a Huey Lewis hit — "I Want a New Drug." But if you didn't listen to the lyrics, you'd never know it was the same song. Musically, he turns it into a jazzy electric piano-backed shuffle, instead of a pounding peppy rock song, emphasizing the yearning angst inherent in the lyric, rather than the horns and beat that took center-stage in the original.
Mr. Lemons is not Phillips' strongest album; the hooks are not as catchy as he sometimes writes, and there doesn't seem to be any potential hit singles for radio here. Nevertheless, it's a thoughtful collection of tracks that entertain in a simple campfire/coffeehouse-style, while making you think just a bit at the same time.
For more information, song samples and more, see his web site at www.glenphillips.com. Phillips will hit Chicago this Saturday and Sunday at Schuba's. He'll return June 18 to perform with Toad The Wet Sprocket at The Toast of Randolph Street.