Although it is typically the practice of music writers to cover the newest releases, there are times when older material resonates more powerfully. Simply put, nothing beats a classic. And, for every individual there are those significant touchstone records that accurately define a moment in time or the passing of a particular event.
For example, maybe you had your first kiss while slow dancing to Journey’s “Faithfully.” Or, maybe you drowned your sorrows while wailing along to the tune of R.E.M.’s “Everybody Hurts.” No doubt there has been a soundtrack to accompany most of your life’s memorable moments.
For me, my late teens and early-twenties will forever be associated with the band Emily’s Toybox. Although popularly labeled as a “cover act” or self-crowned as “the band that fucks your mother,” this Pennsylvania-based group’s unique spin on a variety of classic songs, as well as their delightfully inappropriate original numbers and stage act, provided a catharsis of sorts for my group of friends and I as we embarked on our first tentative steps towards adulthood.
Relationships were formed by attending live performances. Other fans were recruited to our side by a fierce process of indoctrination, more often than not involving copious amounts of alcohol, and long harangues about how one just had to “see them in person man.” New experiences were had and shared. But above all else was fun. We became disciples ingrained with the gospel of the party, and nothing else mattered as long as a good time was had by all.
By the time the group released their record “Pill” in late 2005, our loyalty was without question. When confronted by the group’s decision to part ways with their longtime bassist Leon Karpovich, we readily accepted the newcomer, Matt Kyle, the moment he burst into a comical rendition of Styx’s “Come Sail Away” sung entirely in the voice of Cartman from South Park. Still, there was also the small matter of the music itself.
Pained by their pigeonholing as a cover band, Toybox often used their self-released material to try new things or craft crowd-pleasing anthems that usually ventured on the more risqué side of poor taste. Tracks like “Fuck You,” “Phuck Filly,” and “Beat the Fuck Out of My Friends” sound vulgar, but manage to walk the fine line of being sing-able, while also simultaneously offending any sensitive person within earshot.
Similar to their past work, the rhythms Toybox employs on “Pill” vary from punkish to near-hardcore and even venture into R&B and mock-pop. Catchy guitar riffs drive the momentum of each number, while the bass and drums remain in tight lock-step throughout. Elsewhere, searing leads by wild-man/ guitarist Todd Sensenich occasionally grab the spotlight, but always remain musically in line with the rest of the piece.
Standing out above all else are the vocals of front man Mike Wise. He screams, he croons, he raps. He even breaks out a near-embarrassing falsetto on “Fuck You Too” that oddly plays to the song’s strengths. It’s a manic performance that is never less than engaging, and all the more surprising given the grim tone of the album’s lyrics.
The subject matter of “Pill” appears harsher than the rest of Toybox’s catalog because the anger behind the words is almost palpable. Whether writing sympathetically of a soldier friend as a “Casualty” or portraying the government as a “Meat Machine” that eats up individuals in the name of progress, Wise and company drop their class clown personas momentarily to tackle issues straight out of the headlines.
Unfortunately, what was once rousing now makes portions of the record sound dated. Even though the album is a scant five years old, its references to the conflicts going on in Iraq and Afghanistan are inextricably pinned to the moments they were written. As a historical document, such instances are acceptable practice. However, for current work the sentiments expressed may too often fall on deaf ears and numb brains. Yet, through it all the charm of such a record (and group) is not lost on me.
See Emily’s Toybox perform fan favorite “Your Girlfriend is Pretty Ugly” here:
I count Emily’s Toybox still amongst my personal favorites, and their impact on my life remains immeasurable. Though as music writers we may seldom stoop to recognize such acts, since they aren’t “hip enough” or on the “cutting edge,” they are continually worthy of our attention. If only as remembrances of times gone by or memories long since faded to legend, bands like Emily’s Toybox are the building blocks in one’s musical education. Oh yeah, and they sort of rock too.