The first thing we notice is that the soundscape is wider, bigger even. The band provides their own keyboards and mandolins, along with beefier guitars and louder drums, for an effect that’s more big stage than cramped living room. “Walk On The Ocean” eventually became a hit single when a remixed version gave it even more punch, but the song already had a singalong quality that evoked shared memories of some common experience. Even more vague, “Is It For Me” tells only part of the tale of poor Bradley and his broken leg. Weird as that is, “Butterflies” employs harmonies that sometimes recall Asia and a muffled spoken monologue that seems to predict a montage on the third Pearl Jam album. The weirdness ebbs briefly for “Nightingale Song”, just as impenetrable but still tame compared to what comes next. A truly frightening song when you pay close attention, “Hold Her Down” is based around a simple acoustic riff that the lead guitarist found even more fun to play on a Stratocaster, and words seem to describe just another gang rape at a frat house, the horror apparent in the delivery. It could only be followed by “Pray Your Gods”, a low-key mumble alternating with passionate choruses, closing on a repeated “dona nobis pacem”.
“Before You Were Born” spends a lot of time saying very little, reducing the chorus to a single note that still inspires fist-pumping in waltz-time. “Something To Say” is quieter, and more conducive to swaying, and belies the genre’s affection for the accordion. “In Your Ear” brings back the rock with some dynamics, but these days it’s best known as the song before “All I Want”, the song that made it all explode for them. It’s got everything that made a perfect alterna-hit in the early ‘90s: jangly electrics, chugging acoustics, catchy chorus, Hammond organ, a brief guitar solo sent through the Hammond’s Leslie speaker, ending on an unresolved chord. “Stories I Tell” returns to the claustrophobic sound of the first two albums, but breaking out for louder guitar noises. “I Will Not Take These Things For Granted” provides a sensitive oath to fade off into the sunset.
Chances are many folks bought Fear on cassette, but it’s unlikely many of them noticed how much both of the side-enders fit well with Sammy Hagar’s “Your Love Is Driving Me Crazy”. If they had, they needn’t have cared, since the album was produced so well and so full of earworms. Mashups hadn’t been invented yet anyway.
Toad The Wet Sprocket Fear (1991)—3½