The end of the year is a funny time of year to be reviewing albums. The list of upcoming releases I was sent to choose from was chock-a-block with reissues, live albums and greatest hits compilations. (Art Brut’s Top of the Pops — a 39-track retrospective of my band, in fact, is available in all good record shops.) Unfortunately, those are all the types of albums that the Talkhouse doesn’t cover. I had to look long and hard to find something interesting to write about. In the end, after scouring the internet for an album I might actually enjoy, I settled on Toy’s Join the Dots, an album that, I was told over Twitter, might expand my mind.
Halfway through the first track I realised I’d made a terrible mistake with my choice: my mind wasn’t being expanded, it was being put to sleep.
Before I carry on, I feel I should admit here that I’m only a casual fan of droning shoegaze music. I like a couple of “songs” by My Bloody Valentine and everything by Spaceman 3, and that is where that particular genre ends for me.
However, even with my limited knowledge of droning soundscapes, I could tell with “Conductor,” the first song on Join the Dots, that I was listening to a not very good example of the style. Reading around to find out more about the band, I found out that the London-based group recorded the music for this album, their second release after last year’s self-titled debut, surrounded by atmospheric smoke and laser light shows to create an intriguing “new reality” around them. From listening to the first track it sounds more like they recorded it in a suburban front room whilst their mum was attempting to do housework around them; the whole track reeks of over-earnest adolescent boys trying to be taken seriously. It doesn’t go anywhere, it is just a dirge with what sounds like a Hoover being played in the background. It was embarrassing to listen to and I was already dreading the rest of the album two minutes into the song’s seven-minute length. It is, to say the least, a bold choice of song to open an album. I almost didn’t persevere with the rest of the album. Thankfully I did.
As “Conductor” FINALLY faded out (as if it were a fucking classic rock song, and not a poorly executed attempt at being grandiose) I braced myself for more of the same formulaic, tedious twiddling, interspersed with groans and what I can only presume is somebody trapped in a glockenspiel frantically trying to escape. To my surprise, however, the next couple of tracks — “You Won’t Be the Same” and “As We Turn” — were proper songs that, with their reverb-laden psychedelic jangly guitars, reminded me in places of the Television Personalities, who, when they are at their best, are one of my favourite groups, and even in part brought to mind the Jesus and Mary Chain’s take on west coast pop.
I was delighted that I didn’t have to listen to more songs in a similar vein to that first track but I couldn’t tell if what I was feeling was relief that the rest of the album wasn’t as dire as the first song or an honest appreciation of the music.
It was the fourth song, and album namesake, “Join the Dots” that made me really glad I’d persevered with the record. As a song, it’s everything “Conductor” is not, which is to say it’s an electrifying piece of music whose inventiveness is a thrill to listen to. Where “Conductor” conjured up images of morose teenage boys trying to be clever, “Join the Dots” genuinely sounds like an intergalactic journey into space, or travel through time. (I didn’t even notice its eight-minute length until I realised I’d lost an entire morning listening to it 20 times.) As a song it totally validates their claim to be attempting to create a “new reality.” It made me stop and wonder, “How the fuck do you go about writing a song like that?” in a way that until now only Robyn Hitchcock and the Soft Boys have managed. It is a stunning piece of music and a testament to what the band can achieve, a high-water mark it’s going to be difficult for them to top. I’ll even tentatively admit it “expanded my mind.”
The quality of “Join the Dots” does, unfortunately, make the rest of the album a frustrating listen. It would be churlish to ask them to pull off the same trick twice, but they never come near that greatness again and a lot of their songs sound bloated in the attempt. Every song on the album is at least four minutes long, with most a lot longer, and whereas I’m sure Toy think this makes them sonic pioneers, in my opinion, it actually sounds like they need to edit their songs a little more before committing them to disc.
For example, “Endlessly” builds and builds to a Cure-esque, reverb-drenched, chiming purr that sounds great, but the trick of extending the music gets a little predictable, and sounds a lot like filler. On “Left to Wander,” for example, it sounds like they’ve actually been left to wander, when someone with a firm hand should have reined them in and made them stick to the boundaries of a proper pop song.
I already regret typing that last line. No band should be reined in. (And who am I to define the boundaries of a “proper” popular song.). I suppose, I am just frustrated by Join the Dots, as underneath all of Toy’s experimental posturing I can hear a really good, inventive and exciting pop album trying to escape.
This may sound like I’m being cruel, but really it’s a compliment, I wouldn’t be so frustrated if the bits of this album I love, I didn’t love so much, and with such a passion. Due to the talent on display on songs like “Join the Dots” and album closer “Fall Out of Love” — the massive and incredible ending of which justifies their attempts to repeat the formula on other songs, I’m sure this album is actually just them “joining the dots” between the two styles they appear to be enthralled with (’80s psychedelia and jamming-out shoegaze drone rock) and the next album, hopefully, will be the whole picture. I, for one, am greatly looking forward to finding out.