Monday, January 19, 2015

Toto - XIV - Still Playing For Keeps

Toto XIV is yet another excellent album from Toto. They're the same hard to classify act that has been putting out their sophisticated blend of progressive pop, rock, and jazz since the late seventies, and they continue to grow as purveyors of smart music for the masses.

The set opening 'Running Out Of Time' would have been a big MTV hit - it's got great guitar playing, a rumbling rhythm section with killer drumming, and a fine melody being sung by a great vocalist. Well, it won't be a hit today for the simple reason that there is not a place for it to be a hit. There's no real avenue for this middle aged band to get the attention they so richly deserve, but I think that art is to a degree its own reward, and on that count Toto, a band that's no stranger to the fickle mysteries of pop success, have been beating the odds since day one.

This latest iteration of the band sees the return of bassist David Hungate, a new drummer in Keith Carlock (Steely Dan), vocalist Joseph Williams, and original members Steve Lukather, David Paich, and Steve Porcaro. They are still the same tireless workers who spend endless hours in the studio honing their craft - you know what and who you are listening to the minute the needle hits the grooves, and they are as fearless and adventurous as they've ever been. There's no resting on laurels, or reaching back to recreate formulas - this is a much more politically topical, and mature bunch than the band that topped the charts in the early '80s.

'Burn' is the second track, and David Paich's piano and Carlock's jungle toms are the perfect underpinning for Joseph Williams voice. When Williams kicks up the horsepower the band kicks in with a bit of big rock, but just enough to move things along. Dynamics and atmosphere are still things of value in the tool kit of the serious musician, and these guys switch gears with the smoothness of a Maserati. By the time they're joined by Steve Porcaro's signature synth sounds, Lukather's thick chording, and the layered vocals we're reminded that this is a band that plays for keeps. And they're still winning the war against musical passivity - they insist on an intelligent audience.

Steve Lukather has been on a great run over the last few years, and he's still on the incline - his deftly plucked chords partials ring out to announce 'Holy War', and we're reminded why he was always so revered by his pal Edward Van Halen. He's long been one of the most underrated guitarists in rock, and he just keeps getting better as a writer, player, and performer. The band goes full blown prog on the musical interlude of this rocker, and Lukather's solo is a great combination of heart, soul, and amazing chops. Then the wall of vocals comes back into focus, and rides the tune out on the rails. This should be a scorcher on the stage.

The band displays its musical relationship to the great Steely Dan on '21st Century Blues' as they take the tune from a jazzy and sophisticated take on indigo - not quite blue, but blues informed, and much more enjoyable. Producer CJ Vanston does a great job in combining so many complex and invigorating ingredients into such a delicious and digestible meal. This is just great music - whatever you choose to call it, label it, or think about it - just great music.

David Paich is such a recognizable musical voice, and his stamp on 'Orphan' is inestimable - he's not a household name, but his musical identity is unmistakable. His positivity is engaging, and this uplifting tune is a revelation - perhaps the world just always has a hard time with a message without anger or vitriol, I call it The McCartney Syndrome. It's a great disease to have - the ability to expose your artistic soul and beauty without fear, or trepidation. Art for art's sake.

'Unknown Soldier (for Jeffrey)' is the grown up Toto, a tale that looks askance at a world still at war, and describes it with music that is as energized as its message. This is big rock, and it packs a wallop - everything about it is bold and brash. Even when it backs down it does so with great power, like a ship at sea. An immense sight to see.

Combining complex rhythms with melody has long been a trademark of the Toto sound, and 'The Little Things' is another in a long line of memorable pop tunes that are wrapped up in a tapestry of perfectly placed sounds. The artistry looms large, but there's still a cool tune underneath all the decoration. This is a throwback, but only in the sense that there is a great amount of value placed on skill, precision, and beauty.

Atmospheric keyboards bring in 'Chinatown' and the band's love of geographic settings and travel is again revealed. The slinky rhythms are smooth and the melody winds around the sharp beat and the subtly propulsive bass line. Then the big guitars and vocals remind you of their place in this world, and the dynamic gets passed around amongst the players like a hookah on a hot night. This is intoxicating pop at its best.

'All The Tears' depends more on sheer song craft than any sense of musical interplay, or virtuosic displays of mastery, but there's nothing more masterful than to write a simple song. Mind you, there's still great ear candy all over this track, it's just not as in your face.

Toto has always been as much about the vocals as the instrumental artistry, and 'Fortune' is a great example of the band's power as vocalists. Tight harmonies and big choruses are almost taken for granted, but a close listen reveals just how hard they work to get it this right.

The piano and string accompaniment on 'Great Expectations' takes us back to the days when guys like David Paich, Elvis Costello, and Joe Jackson could ride near the top of the charts, and intelligent writing was not the exception, but the rule. Joseph Williams takes up the heavy lifting for the soaring chorus, and again the band joins in like a six-headed beast that moves with the precision of a Swiss watch. When the breakdown comes it's in the form of Lukather doing a solo that will make anyone who ever loved David Gilmour smile - I bring up the Floyd axeman for the simple reason that when it comes to musical interplay, Toto is one of the few bands on the planet who I believe compares with that band when it comes to sheer sonic matters. It makes me wonder why Toto has never been mentioned in conversations that include bands like Pink Floyd, Rush, and other bands that have so masterfully combined pop and rock with incredible and sophisticated music. Such are the questions I ponder.

Toto XIV is an excellent record that will grow with repeated listenings, and exposure. The big question is whether a larger world awaits to embrace great records like this - they're being made, but I worry about exposure that reaches further than an already existing hard core - it would be my recommendation that if you're not already a big Toto fan that you buy this record and take another listen. There's gold to be mined in these grooves.

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