Review Summary: Tonic's best album is one of the 90's best as well.
Lumped in with the hundreds of post-grunge rock bands of the 90's, Tonic was unfairly maligned for belonging to a movement they never took part in. Rather than drawing their influence from the Seattle movement, Tonic took their inspiration from the classic rock and power pop of the 70's. While simple four chord power rock was dominating the airwaves, Tonic was a throwback to a different time. They were a classic band doomed to exist in a time when the classic was out of fashion.
Like many albums and artists of the classic age, Lemon Parade cannot be fit neatly into a box, the songs not the result of a musical formula. Each song on the album is its own entity, with its own sound and its own energy. Singer/guitarist Emerson Hart and guitarist Jeff Russo use their instruments to paint a canvas for each song, layering their sounds to give color to the backdrops. On "If You Could Only See", Russo plays a weeping slide guitar that lets the song stick out the first time it's heard. "Soldier's Daughter" features stunningly delicate interplay between the two clean guitars as Hart uses his voice to paint a tortured story. Russo's accents are keys to almost every song, hidden gems of melody buried in the background to be discovered by dedicated listeners.
That is not to say that the album lacks immediacy. Hart and Russo provide sticky riffs in "Open Up Your Eyes", "Casual Affair", and "Bigot Sunshine", while Russo's solos are tasteful, melodic, and always an essential addition to the song. Hart responds with a set of melodies that are captivating, yet familiar. Using his vocal inflections like another instrument, Hart spins his melodies to soar above the music, drilling the hook into the listener.
"If You Could Only See" was the most played track on radio in 1997, and for obvious reasons. The song is a four minute tour-de-force, throwing every element together to form the perfect pop-rock song. Strummed acoustic guitars give way to sludgy power chords in the verses. Hart's voice is low, sinister as he tells of deceit and betrayal, letting his voice open up as the chorus unfolds. Russo adds in a searing solo, capping off a classic song.
"If You Could Only See" is the highlight of the album, but only one of a dozen songs that comprise a classic album. "Soldier's Daughter" and "Mr. Golden Deal" are laid-back ballads that build to fiery crescendos, while "Casual Affair" and "Thick" are dirty rockers that ride on slithering riffs. "Celtic Aggression" stands out, even among the variety of the album, for its distinct sound. Drawing from Hart's Irish background, the song blends elements of that sound into the music, culminating in a section written in Celtic. This is a song that only Tonic could have written, and only Tonic could make work.
Even the weaker songs on Lemon Parade contain driving hooks. "Wicked Soldier" is a standard-issue rocker built on a simple riff that explodes into a chorus featuring Hart's most dynamic vocal performance. His dynamic voice carries the album, given a solid constant to the shifting sound of the band. His voice is clear, expressive, and powerful. His ability to sell a hook is the difference that elevates Tonic from being merely a good band to being a great band
Lemon Parade is an underlooked classic from a dark period in rock history. While many bands were taking rock in a simpler, angrier direction, Tonic was carrying the flag for rock in the most classic form.