CD Review of Mr. Lemons by Glen Phillips

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Mr. Lemons
starstarstarhalf starno star Label: Umami/Big Helium
Released: 2006
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It’s been seventeen years since Toad the Wet Sprocket released their debut album, Bread and Circus, beginning a path that would take them ‘round the world and toward the upper reaches of the charts before they disintegrated after touring behind 1997’s underrated Coil. Since then, guitarist Todd Nichols and Dean Dinning have soldiered on together as part of the band Lapdog, but Toad’s lead singer, Glen Phillips, set off on a solo career and, by some reports, hasn’t stopped touring since 1998. This is surely a bit of an exaggeration, but probably not as much of one as you’d think.

It’s impressive turnaround time for Phillips to get a new album in stores; there’s only been a 14-month gap between the last one – Winter Pays for Summer – and this one. You can, however, tell that Mr. Lemons didn’t take nearly as long to make as its predecessor…and I mean that in the best possible way.

Phillips has admitted in interviews that the sparsely produced and arranged Mr. Lemons was a conscious decision on his part to make an album that felt more like the acoustic performances that have made up the majority of his solo touring. It’s also, one has to presume, a reaction to the lush production of Winter and its parade of guest performers, from Ben Folds and Jon Brion to Andy Sturmer (Jellyfish) and Dan Wilson (Semisonic); here, the spotlight is almost exclusively on Phillips. The lone exception, really, is when Kim Richey, Phillips’ co-writer on the track “Last Sunset,” who pops up occasionally to sing a harmony vocal.

Mr. Lemons opens with “Everything but You,” the song on the album that sounds the most like Phillips’ former band and the perfect way to introduce the album to those who’ve just found out about his solo career by catching this summer’s Toad reunion tour. The next song, however, “Blindsight,” is the first sign of the gentle, slight instrumentation that dominates the proceedings…but, then, it’s followed by “Thank You,” with its marching beat and percussive chorus. It’s a nice mixing-up of sounds throughout; just when you might be tempted to accuse the album of being a bit too gentle, it bounces back with something a bit more upbeat.

Perhaps the most unique selection on Mr. Lemons is a cover of Huey Lewis and the News’ “I Want a New Drug,” something a friend of his suggested he take a stab at; when he did so, it was without going back to listen to the original…and, trust me, when you check out his take on the track, you can tell. Still, it has a dark, slightly spooky vibe to it, and – possibly because it is so musically dissimilar from the original – it holds its own among Phillips’ own compositions.

Mr. Lemons may still prove too downbeat for fans of Toad the Wet Sprocket, and, as noted, those who came into Phillips’ camp via his last disc will be sorely disappointed to find a dearth of upbeat pop-rock tracks. The folks who’ve been with him from the moment he went solo, however, will simply sigh pleasantly and declare this to be just the return to form they’ve been waiting for.

(FYI, demos of outtakes from Winter Pays for Summer turned up on a recent EP called Lucky 7, which Phillips has described as “more like the stuff I’m interested in, as far as production goes…more like Peter Gabriel or Talk Talk…and they’re very strange and lumpy and weird.” I don’t know what “lumpy and weird” sounds like, but, hell, he had me at Talk Talk.)

~Will Harris