Audiophilia, Thoughts

I Can’t Quit You: Glen Phillips

Photograph: Fawcett Society
Bill Bailey in his Fawcett Society T-shirt

Unfortunately, I cannot remember when I learned that the term “feminist” didn’t have to apply just to women.  I do remember, however, the first guy I thought of as a feminist.  During the 90’s, when I was an adolescent, there was a healthy group of sensitive men to admire.  However, it wasn’t Kurt Cobain, the reformed Beastie Boys or the guys from Kids in the Hall that I labeled “My First Male Feminist.” That honor went to Glen Phillips.

With his band Toad the Wet Sprocket, Phillips performed a number of emotional songs like “All I Want,” “Fall Down,” “Whatever I Fear,” & the rape apologia “Hold Her Down.”  Their album Fear is a perfect example, to me, of mid-90s sensitive male singer-songwriterism.  Unfortunately, Toad the Wet Sprocket broke up near the end of the 90s just as the aggro male backlash started.  The popularity of rap rock (or “rape rock” as some called it after the debacle of Woodstock ’99) was so immediate and intense it was hard to believe that just a few years before we had Marilyn Manson walking around with prosthetic breasts & Calvin Klein selling us CK-Be with androgynous models.  Or that someone like Fred Durst could name Kurt Cobain & Brian Molko as some of his favorite musicians.

After the breakup of Toad, Glen Phillips soon set up his own website & offered downloads of songs he was working on with the promise of a solo album to come.  I was pretty excited at the time; the new songs sounded interesting (particularly the original demo of “Easier” which you can find nowhere these days but which I thankfully still have on my hard drive).  I was eager to see what else Phillips had to offer.  When the CD Abulum finally came out in 2001 though, I had to eventually admit I was underwhelmed.

So what happened?  Well, listening to the CD again in 2012, I think it must be hard to go from writing songs and making music with a band to just doing it by yourself.  More people involved with the song-writing process means more ideas, more ears to listen and form critiques, just more substance to the music in general.  Abulum shows that Phillips still can be an evocative lyricist with lyrics like “He was a writer’s block poet,” and “I am provider but providence has been swayed.”  But these moments are spare among the general folk-rock you-look-so-sad-girl songs.

Philips is still working his feminist cred with songs like “Men Just Leave,” “Professional Victim,” and “Maya.”  The problem is that he’s done it before and with more oomph with Toad.  Even though “All I Want” and “Good Intentions” became part of the aural taffy of mainstream  radio hits, there was a depth and variety to Toad’s other songs that could really suck you in.  I think the example I keep coming to in my mind is the difference between the demo of “Easier” that I mentioned earlier and the version that was actually released.

(Since I can’t find a sample of the demo online, I’ll have to describe it.  Sorry, dear Reader.)

The demo of “Easier” is a haunting little tune, with a simple acoustic guitar, a brisk drum beat & ghostly sounds created by a synth? a keyboard? some strange instrument that gives the song a little Cure flavor.  The opening lines go “I am the son of a soap opera town, a Mayberry rebel, a middle class clown.”  And from there the song describes a marriage between this local boy & his sweetheart that doesn’t fulfill him, but scares him badly because there are so many ways to lose someone you love.  What should be a love song becomes a oh-God-please-don’t-leave-me song that culminates in the line, “If you thought I could be replaced, I wouldn’t just start with an ear, I would cut off my whole fucking face just to make my point clear.”  The demo is fantastic; a revealing little song about the dark side of love.

And the version that actually came out later had been tamed considerably.  The opening lines were changed to “I was eighteen so were you, I was that Birkenstock geek rock dude.”  The tempo picked up and skipped along less threateningly and more playfully.  And depending on the version you listen to, Phillips no longer swears.  Although these are minor changes, they are enough to defang the song and make it blander.  And it is these same stylistic changes that mark the before-solo career Glen Phillips and after-solo career Glen Phillips.

(Yes, he does swear in this version, but not on the album version, which is why I made the distinction.)

Abulum didn’t mark the end of my interest in Phillips though.  I did pick up his second disc Winter Pays For Summer and found that both lyrics and music were more varied and a little closer to the Toad songs I had fallen in love with.  Abulum is great for those listeners who are completists and want everything Phillips has done.  He is still a talented musician and “Crowing” will always be at the top of my Unrequited Love Songs playlist.  So let’s just chalk Abulum up to a rough start and enjoy the music.