13 April 2007

Hail Hydra, Immortal Hydra

Way back in 1979-80 – can’t remember the exact year -- my dad had a WGBF bumper sticker on his car. He was driving home from work one night when the “WGBF Prize Fan” spotted the sticker pulled him over.

(How a radio station vehicle effects such a traffic stop is unknown to me, but that’s irrelevant to this anecdote.)

The prize van’s pilot dumped a few t-shirts, a Frisbee and a few more bumper stickers on Vitamin J Sr., but best of all, they gave him a “six-pack” of vinyl LPs. So dad came home that night with an armload of promo stuff. I was already heavily into the music by that point, so I was most intrigued to see what records the old man had scored.

Half of them were so memorable that I cannot for the life of me recall what they were, although I do remember that I was dismayed that they all had little notches and holes punched in the sleeves – as I would later discover, this is the mark of the promotional release.

The three that I do remember included some band called Oak, Permanent Waves by Rush and Hydra by Toto. It wasn’t until much later in my life that I realized that all of the records were by artists that weren’t exactly in heavy rotation on WGBF’s airwaves, and that the station’s largesse wasn’t motivated so much by spreading the wealth as it was getting rid of records they weren’t going to play and were therefore just cluttering up the offices.

Regardless of motives, I was pretty impressed by the fact that a little bumper sticker had enabled someone to score six albums at one pop. I was a little less impressed when dad announced that he already knew a few people at work who would give him a few bucks for the records, as I kind of had assumed he’d let me keep them all. Worst of all, Permanent Waves went out the door the next day, so I eventually had to buy my own copy after I got heavily into Rush in the eighth grade.

But there apparently weren’t any Toto fans where my dad worked, and I was able to hang on to Hydra. The album was the follow-up to their epononymous debut record, which contained the hit “Hold the Line,” so I knew who Toto were, vaguely, and better still, Hydra’s first single, “99,” was in the Top 40, so I had heard it a few times. “99” is a slow, introspective ballad with lots of keyboards. I used to think that it was semi-orchestrated as well, but what I originally thought was a horn section turned out to be synthesizers meant to sound like horns.

Anyhow, “99” excepted, I didn’t know what to expect when I first listened to Hydra, but I dropped the needle and let the magic unfold.

I almost always read the liner notes before I listen to any album, and although the lyrics were included in Hydra’s packaging, mysteriously, only the opening phrase from each of “Hydra’s” verses are presented in brackets for some reason, i.e., [[There was a man]]; [There was a lady]]; [[There was a dragon lord]]. I’ve always wondered why the full lyrics weren’t incorporated, but it made the song seem more enigmatic than its companions.

The song fades in on an ominous orghan chord and then just as quickly fades out on a heavy sound that always reminded me of some big sea creature plopping down out in the depths of the ocean – Davy Jones’s locker made audible. There’s some barely audible humming and other assorted studio tomfoolery before the song properly gets underway...

“Hydra” the song tells a story that any middle school-aged geek would find tantalizing, something about the abovementioned dragon lord, throats getting cut, freedom versus love, all the important stuff. Better yet, its music kicks ass. Although the tune is credited as a group compositin, it’s quite obviously maing songwriter David Paich’s baby. Paich plays keyboards, so the song has tons of ‘em – organ, piano, synthesizers – and they’re all used to great effect.

Next track is “St. George and the Dragon,” and at this point, it seems as if Toto has some kind of mythological creature-themed concept album going here. “St. George” is definitely a companion pice to “Hydra,” although it’s much more upbeat.

Next is “99,” which is a good piece of solid adult contemporary pop craftsmanship with faux-jazz flourishes during its extended outro. The wisdom of addressing a lover as “99” gioves the song a vaguely SF aura, and it turns out Paich was inspired by the movie THX-119. It would have been cooler if he had written it in tribute to Agent 99 from Get Smart. Barbara Feldon was pretty cute back in the day.

Back to Hydra. Side 1 concludes with “Lorraine,” which uses the soft verse, loud chorus dynamic that would be later used to great effect by such acts as Husker Du, the Pixies and Nirvana, none of whom would be caught dead listening to a Toto record. This is not to say that “Lorraine” sounds like Nirvana – far from it. They just share a basic structural similarity, especially if Nirvana had used lots of piano and synthesizers and fretless bass.

Side 2 is the less accessible half of Hydra but it’s still pretty enjoyable. “All Us Boys” is yet another entry in that canon of songs about male bonding, and as a seventh grader, I assumed that as soon as I got my driver’s license, I too would find a posse of rowdy hooligans with which to drink, smoke and carouse. The song is not quite as balls-out as it perhaps it should be, given the subject matter, but as with all the tracks on the album, it is impeccably crafted.

Now, impeccable craftsmanship goes against everything that rock ‘n’ roll is supposed to stand for, but this is Toto, which, it should be noted, was comprised of six seasoned veterans of the Los Angeles studio musician circuit. For example, most of the band played on Boz Scaggs’s big hit records from the ‘70s, and nothing defines MOR slick lite rock like Boz Scaggs. Hell, Paich co wrote “Lowdown” and “Lido Shuffle,” two tracks for which I have more of these warm fuzzy childhood memories. Regardless, the band’s pedigree amply illustrates the fact that they could play the living shit out of their instruments, particularly Lukather and bassist David Hungate.

So anyway, after “All Us Boys” comes “Mama,” which serves as a showcase for singer Bobby Kimball’s vocal chops. Although Kimball was ostensibly Toto’s lead vocalist, three other band members take turns at the microphone: Guitarist Steve Lukather sings “99,” keyboardist Steve Porcaro sings “A Secret Love,” and Paich sings “Hydra,” “Lorraine” and “All Us Boys.” Regrettably, it kind of proves Toto’s critics right by saying that I assumed all of the above-listed tunes were sung by Paich because the three Toto guys who aren’t Kimball all have similar phrasing and vocal tones, i.e., they sound alike, which is probably why Toto was always denigrated as being bland and nondescript.

Next is “White Sister,” which is sort of a companion piece to “Mama” – more woman-done-me wrong brought to life by Kimball’s over-the-top wailing (“over-the-top” is not used pejoratively here). The album wraps up with “A Secret Love,” which serves almost as an aural after-dinner mint or something; it’s slight and airy, but deliberately so.

For somebody who has railed against the evils of Chuck Klosterman and the pointless self-referential anecdote, I realize that this entry could have been a whole lot more succinct had I eliminated the whole prize van build-up and written a straight album review, but I felt the need to couch my appreciation for this slice of classic rock heaven with a qualifying preface, i.e., “I was in grade school so I didn’t know that Toto were terminally uncool.” And even though I like to think that I never apologize or make excuses for my tastes, I couldn’t help myself for some reason. Because, well, it’s Toto.

But still. There’s something beautiful and magical about that time in your life before your critical facilities are fully formed, before your adult sensibilities are in place, when your tastes are at their purest, most unfiltered and you’re not too cool to like something.

I’ve written before about my teen years and how I rejected most of the music I liked pre-high school because I thought I was above the pleasures of classic rock and heavy metal, in some sort of adolescent attempt to “put away childish things.” This was before I realized that replacing Cheap Trick and KISS with the Buzzcocks and Husker Du only makes you look cooler to your fellow rock snobs (which is not to say that I never really liked the Buzzcocks or Husker Du -- I'm just using them as examples). In the real world, almost nobody cares what kind of music you listen to. And besides, just as one can appreciate and enjoy both White Castle and filet mignon, so too can one enjoy both the Cars and Van der Graaf Generator.

If you like it, it’s good. That’s really all that matters. And by that definition, Hydra is a great record.

Um, yeah, sorry that wasn’t exactly earth-shattering in its profundity…


Peter Cortner said...

I completely agree, and I'm actually listening to (and quite enjoying) "Hydra" as I type this.

Replace Cheap Trick and Kiss with Buzzcocks and Husher Du? Never. There's room for all four, and Toto besides.

Thanks for the good reading.

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