Themes comes from the collective mind of Toebow, a five piece comprised of veterans of the vibrant New York city scene. The album is their debut full-length work following the recent EP Spirit Mane (2018). The band is known to pride itself on its eclectic style and influences and Themes provides no exception. The work is full of interesting rhythms and dominant synth work while the guitar playing is a particular highlight. There’s plenty to sing praises for and yet unfortunately the album just never quite hits its stride.
“Toebow Theme” opens the album on a suitably poppy and upbeat note. The track itself begins with a sort of heavenly synth choir before cutting into the break beats and guitar that cover the rest of the runtime. The song is fairly emblematic of the album as a whole in that it never reaches its full potential. The guitar playing is impressive but the song is about three minutes longer than it needs to be and there’s a lack of interesting ideas to justify the runtime.
“Key Song” is perhaps best described as being a bit of a beach party anthem. It features a classic 80s kick-snare-kick rhythm, the female backing vocals are a clear highlight and the song has real echoes of Simple Minds. The male lead vocals are a little subdued but the melodies themselves are quite nice. The guitar playing this time is less impressive than on “Toebow Theme”, even though a solo takes centre focus.
“Mr. Tony” is a ballad to its elusive title character. The song is definitely one of the better ones on the album, it’s oddly described in the press release as being a banger even though it comes across more sombre or relaxing than anything. The vocals are once again subdued but they’re much more evenly fitting this time around. Finally the rhythm section are the real heroes this time, especially the silky baselines.
“Golden Hamburger” is a a fairly brief new wave sounding track with hints of ambient synths. It’s an instrumental like the opener but unlike “Toebow Theme” it’s brief enough so as to not out stay its welcome. There’s a minimalist philosophy here that would have been fitting on the opening.
“Something Optimistic” begins with more ambient synth work before a drum machine takes over. The song lives up to its title, it’s just that it isn’t super interesting in the way it goes about it. The distorted guitar lines are on par with the best on the album but none of the other instrumentation really jumps out. The song comes across as though its intended placement is background to a television commercial or a YouTube tutorial.
The single “Bed In Breakfast” once again gets kudos for its concise length but that’s just about it. Sadly not a standout worthy of single consideration, there’s more of the same jazzy guitars and soft vocals. That’s not to say there isn’t potential – the performance is tight but calling a song a single usually means it’s a song you would play to entice new listeners. It’s hard to imagine “Bed in Breakfast” blowing the proverbial socks off listeners and making them want more.
“Burnt Bread” is a very different timbre to the synth-soaked rest of the album. It features the best vocals of all the songs in every way from performance to mix. The guitar is not so dominant this time but it pays off because the excellent vocals are really able to shine. There’s also some acoustic guitar work that provides another pleasant juxtaposition with the rest of the album and its verses are actually very reminiscent of The Velvet Underground.
Closer “Return of Toebow” is the longest track, sitting at five and half minutes. It’s a return to the previous aesthetic of the album and a stylistic reprise of the opening track. Unfortunately that means it also falls into the same traps and is once again more like background music than a noteworthy finale. On the whole the track just seems more like doodling, there’s no strong focal point – “Burnt Bread” would have been a much stronger closing song. As with the entire album, the performances are very strong which is just frustrating more than anything because of the tease they give to what could have been.
Themes is a mixed bag. There’s plenty of talent on display in this fairly listenable album but it all just falls short of its potential. Aside from one or two noteworthy songs there just feels like an absence of strong ideas. However, despite the shortcomings of Themes, there’s enough to point to the future of Toebow being a particularly bright one.
Themes is released Friday 24th May via Imaginator Records.