Review Summary: Sometimes the past is exactly where we want to be.
Time makes all the difference. For some bands, time erodes their legacy, the music feeling more and more like a remnant of a bygone era. Songs become fossils, and bands that once dominated the charts are relegated to playing their hits on a nostalgia circuit, reminding fans of a time long since passed.
The 90's produced throngs of such bands, the early post-grunge movement spawning any number of faceless groups whose music stands the test of time only as a reminder of the trends of the day. Tonic was thought to be one of those bands, their debut album Lemon Parade lumped in with the rest of the dour rock music that found its way on the radio. But they were never a post-grunge band, their sound more derived from the classic rock of the 70's than anything that came out of Seattle. They left any comparison behind with their second album, Sugar, but aside from lead single "You Wanted More", they had already been left behind. Head On Straight followed to little fanfare, a stubborn outlier in the new age of rock music.
After a seven year hiatus in which lead singer Emerson Hart put out a songwriter-oriented solo album, Cigarettes And Gasoline, Tonic has returned to the same form that found them out of place when they stepped away from the spotlight. Instead of chasing trends, Tonic is resolved to continue producing tightly constructed pop music filtered through their classic rock sensibilities. That means that Tonic is exactly the record you would expect it to be, and it is destined to be another forgotten gem from one of the best bands to come of age in the 90's.
Hart's solo album wasn't much of a departure from the three Tonic records, but it enabled him to explore new aspects of his songwriting, stretching away from the rigid boundaries of pop radio to incorporate more moods and textures to his songs. That record proves to be the blueprint for Tonic, the band taking on the personality of his solo album. Tonic is the band's most diverse album, swinging between driving guitar songs and slower, more introspective numbers.
"Release Me" makes the opening statement, a perfect reflection of who the band was, and who they still are. Hart's acoustic guitars sing as his structural lyrics hearken back to their two biggest hits. When the electric guitar take charge with their two note riff leading into the chorus, the feeling is unmistakably Tonic. "Daffodil" immediately changes the tone, with bouncing acoustic guitars and a weeping slide setting up Hart's falsetto chorus.
The album keeps throwing curves, alternating electric-drenched rockers like "I Want It To Be", "Bigger Than Both", and "Torn To Pieces" with quieter moments like the lilting ballad "Nothing Is Everything", the uplifting "Where Do I Fit", and the cascading melody of the folk-inspired closer "She Goes Down". Every song is an entity unto itself, a collection of unique songs that hang together because of the band's signature sound. Even when taking on unfamiliar material, like the Smiths-influenced "Precious Little Bird", Tonic sounds like no one but Tonic. The song's churning chords and circular melody are new, but strangely familiar.
Guitarist Jeff Russo is the unsung hero, filling the songs with textures and fills that breathe life into the compositions. His playing is subtle, giving melodic backdrops to the chord progressions, never leading the music but giving strength to the arrangements in ways few bands are able to achieve these days. He understands his role as a player, embracing the ability to transform the songs through the details, making his presence felt even when in the back of the mix. When he does step forward, taking a solo in "Where Do I Fit", he plays a stinging melody completely bereft of technical showboating, filled to the brim with emotional playing.
Tonic is an album that sums up the band's career in 42 minutes. It feels like a tapestry woven from the fabric of all three previous albums, but the unmistakable descendant of Sugar. The albums are kindred spirits, mosaics of pop sounds cobbled together to show the versatility of song.
Time has dimmed the spotlight shining on Tonic, but has done little to change who they are or what they do. From album to album they have slowly lost the looser elements that made them a rock band, trimming and tightening their songs into sharp statements, turning into purveyors of song-craft the likes of which are rarely appreciated. Tonic may not be their best album, but it is a welcome return, and a loud opening statement to a new phase of their career.