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Hell Below/Stars Above

music reviewmusic review  out of 4 Music Review: Hell Below/Stars Above

Artist: Toadies
Genre: Rock
Release Date: March 2001

Review by LarryG
2 stars out of 4

The Texas band Toadies had a surprise hit with 1994's Rubberneck CD. The music had good tension partly because the band seemed like smart people who liked to play dumb, loud rock. Rubberneck also had an edgy atmosphere and darkness that lent an added dimension, especially to Possum Kingdom, the seductive first person vampire tale. Hell Below/Stars Above, Toadies first CD since Rubberneck, is mostly hard rock that lacks the atmospheric edge of Rubberneck's best songs. With new guitarist Clark Vogeler on board, the band enjoys just wailing. That sometimes creates a visceral thrill. But with not much melody or any other hook to grab on to Hell Below/Stars Above is hard to warm to.

It's clear from the start of Hell Below/Stars Above that it's about rocking out. On Place Crash, over Vogeler's very fast guitar line, Lewis is juiced up like a young Eddie Vedder on crack, gleefully whooping whoas and yeahs and cockily crying "we know what we really want." Just listening to it is exhausting. Push The Hand is slower, with an stupid, stomping arena rock riff. Big power chords also underline Little Sin. Its lyric, apparently about trying to convince a girl to lose her virginity, is one of a few where Lewis is a little too pleased with his own depravity. Sweetness is also an unpleasant hard rocker about tempting someone into bed.

There is quite a bit to like about HB/SA. Hell Below/Stars Above's title track, which has guest piano from Elliott Smith, is a hysterical mini-rock opera like Queen used to do. It's a two part epic, perhaps about the agitation then peace that comes when a man, hysterical about seeing an ex with another, decides to kill himself. Starting with a frantic chorus and finishing with cool, soulful backup singers, Hello Below/Stars Above is hard to resist. The CD is fun when Lewis is totally nuts and goes beyond rock belting for a primal scream. What We Have We Steal is routine, with the kind of basic riff Stone Temple Pilots use to show they're rocking hard, until the end when Lewis shrieks "you're not so nice anymore." The pep talk of Motivational becomes distilled to a delirious rant: "get your head around it." I'm not as fond of Heel. Lewis sings about teaching a woman respect and discipline then yells the title's command. You'll Come Down, with its nice, twisty guitar line, comes closest to Rubberneck's edgy, atmospheric songs. As he often does, Lewis flirts with misogyny, turning the tables on a woman who "stowed away my breath", predicting "when I drag you down, you will sink like an anchor" and "you'll come down on my side." Jigsaw Girl, about keeping body parts of the woman he loved "scattered around my apartment", also has Rubberneck's cool attitude but I've heard enough wry, wicked songs about crazy guys who kill women. I'm not that impressed with the quiet ballad Pressed Again The Sky but it is good to hear Lewis doing a straight love song("if this is a dream I'm happy you're having it with me") without a nasty edge.

It's hard to figure Hell Below/Stars Above's target audience. The CD is probably too weird and its tone is too inconsistent to interest rock fans. It often rocks too hard for alternative music fans. And a lot of the stories are really nasty and ugly about women. Still, Hell Below/Stars Above packs the thrill of big guitars and bigger arrangements and the strangeness of the theatrical, over the top songs and the intensity of Lewis' big lunged howls can compelling.



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