Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Tonic Week: Discography

Tonic does not have the most expansive discography, consisting of only four albums over the course of the last twenty years, but they have made four albums that each have their own identity, and work together to showcase the various facets of the band. Nothing about the four albums repeats themselves, and having not flooded the market with an endless string of similar records, diluting their sound, each one is a vivid signpost marking a moment in time. Let's look at Tonic's four efforts:

Lemon Parade (1996)

"Lemon Parade" is Tonic's classic, and for good reason. It contains their biggest hit, it went platinum, and to this day it resonates because it was not the same as the rest of the music rock bands were making to get on the radio. Underneath the dirty sheen of the post-grunge production, "Lemon Parade" is a classic rock record, borrowing more from Led Zeppelin and Fleetwood Mac than anything that was popular at the time. For that reason, it never feels dated, it never feels tied down to that particular moment in the 90s. "Lemon Parade" could have been released in 1976, and it would have sounded exactly the same.

The genius of the record is the way the songs explore diversity, without ever sounding like a hodgepodge of material thrown together for the sake of making a record. Heavy rockers like "Casual Affair" sit next to the mournful melancholy of "Soldier's Daughter", and it makes perfect sense. "Lemon Parade" sees Tonic at their heaviest, their loosest, and their best. From top to bottom, these songs are almost all among Tonic's best, culminating in the massive "Mountain", a song that builds and explodes in a way they never even attempted again. Bands rarely start a career with a fully formed sound, but Tonic did on "Lemon Parade".

Sugar (1999)

After the success that "Lemon Parade" generated, it would have been easy to go into the studio and try to replicate that sound. Instead, Tonic turned their attention elsewhere, and made a kaleidoscope of guitar-pop. The heavier moments were still there, but the songwriting tightened noticeably, taking out the extraneous moments for a leaner attack. Instead of going on a journey with the band, "Sugar" jumped out of the speakers and wore you down with relentless melody. The diversity was still in full effect, with songs running the gamut from deep and heavy rock to soft ballads, but this time you could hear the two sounds beginning to pull away from one another.

"Sugar" is a record of highs. It isn't quite as consistent as "Lemon Parade", but it made up for that with a string of exceptional songs that more than outweighed the change in direction. "Future Says Run", "You Wanted More", Mean To Me", and the title track are legendarily great songs whose only problem is that they shine a bit too brightly. "Queen" and "Top Falls Down" have more than enough grit and swagger to hold their own, but "Sunflower" and "Drag Me Down", while being very good songs, simply aren't on the same level. But that doesn't stop "Sugar" from being Tonic's pop manifesto.

Head On Straight (2002)

For their third outing, Tonic once again shifted directions. If "Sugar" had veered a bit too far down the pop boulevard, "Head On Straight" was an over-correction in the opposite direction. This is Tonic's heaviest record, and its most unrelentingly rock album. From start to finish, Tonic is plugged-in, turned up, and proving that they are a rock band first and foremost. But while "Sugar" was unable to fully bridge the two sides of Tonic's identity, this record didn't even try. We get the token pop song with the sickeningly catchy "Believe Me", but otherwise Tonic rips through a set of songs that barely nods their heads to their pop roots.

That doesn't mean the songs aren't as catchy as ever. "Roses", "Take Me As I Am", and "Count On Me" are all songs with gargantuan hooks that should have been far bigger hits than they were, while the darker material like "Ring Around Her Finger" and "Let Me Go" provided the breathing room we needed after being floored by those perfectly crafted pieces of rock. The only downside to the album is how the heavy focus on being a rock band sapped Tonic of part of their identity. The record has almost no acoustic guitars on it, save for "Irish" (my single least favorite Tonic song), which robs the record of a key component of Tonic sounding like Tonic. It's a record with fantastic songs, but it doesn't quite sound like Tonic.

Tonic (2010)

Which brings us to Tonic's most recent album. It took three records, and a hiatus in between, for Tonic to finally find the right balance of who they are. This record is tightly wound pop/rock in accordance with "Sugar", uses its muscular guitars like "Head On Straight", and throws in more than enough acoustic guitars and pianos to sound like classic Tonic. While an eponymous album so late in a career is usually a sign of creative distress, it works here, because "Tonic" is Tonic finding and honing their voice.

If you threw the first three albums into a blender, the result would sound much like this record. You have the obvious hits in "Release Me" and "I Want It To Be" that fit the mold of previous Tonic favorites, the tight pop nuggets like "Torn To Pieces" that couldn't be more perfectly addictive, and the changes of pace like "Precious Little Bird" and "Bigger Than Both" that recall some of the looseness from "Lemon Parade". At times the writing is a bit too tight, the songs too constricted by their focus on removing anything that isn't vital, but that leaves an album without an ounce of filler. Tonic was always a great band writing great songs, but with this album they figured out how to write great Tonic songs.

Sadly, though, there hasn't been another album in these following years to serve as evidence that I'm right, or that I'm terribly wrong. Hopefully there will be new Tonic music someday. But for now, these four albums are the cornerstones upon which my favorite band rests.

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