Alex Toth is a broken man. On his debut solo record, the Brooklyn-based artist explores his contemporary nuanced sorrow detailing the dysfunction and despair associated with the loss of his long-time love. Through his idiosyncratic use of falsetto and vocal cadence, Toth imbues a sense of jovial melancholy into these downtempo alt-pop ballads, making for an album whose beauty lies in its genuine expression of insecurity.
Born from a tragic timeframe, Practice Magic and Seek Professional Help When Necessary sees Alex Toth coming to grips with the “conscious uncoupling” of him and his Rubblebucket cofounder and partner. Spurred on by close mate Kimbra, Toth’s penchant for jazz trumpet endows him with an ear for colourful minimalistic arrangements and melodies. With his acoustic guitar acting as a companion on what feels like a dive into his own journal, the soloist’s catharsis sounds complete, albeit inconsistent.
The pairing of acoustic guitar and ethereal vocals on opener “Down For The Count” give a ritualistic introduction to the delicacy of Tōth. Heavy reverb and delay are the only proponents to the minimalistic beauty, of which Kimbra features as a co-writer. Hard hitting storytelling pulls fewer punches than the soundscape, immediately illuminating where the singer’s head is at; “Yeah I know you’ve got to go, but I was looking forward to waking up with you over and over”. Sung with a false humour through its chorus, Toth mimics that of his modern romance where diffidence is masked with joviality.
Percussion plays a bigger role on follow up “Song to Make You Fall in Love With Me”. A peculiar offbeat cymbal and snare enhance the soft-spoken vocals to give another lightly-arranged track the warmth of a lovers’ ride on a rickety old cart. The story being told, however, remains one of insecurity and desperate desire as Toth compels his subject and himself into overindulgence; “Don’t tell me there’s something wrong with wanting everything”.
“No Reason” doubles down on this necessity for contact; “I wanna be free, I wanna be touched, but softly at first”. Over a prominent Grizzly Bear influence, haunting harmonised backing vocals overcast an eclectic percussive combination and acoustic fingerpick run. Keys and arpeggiated xylophones add a candy coloured quality to the scene before a grainy trumpet solo transports the number into a dreary, smoke-filled jazz bar. A nod to his own musicianship, Toth conjures a visceral ambience.
“Co-Pilot” is the most accessible song on the record, pushing into fleshed-out pop replete with strings and a sweet chorus hook. His ever-present underlying acoustic riffs meld with his poetic pace that snags the listener before the chorus digs in. Beneath these upbeat melodies, however, remains more of the tragic realisations intoned on earlier tracks; “Now you’re taking me for a ride, it was a beautiful ride”. Another standout, “Picture of You”, follows suit with its stirring wind section that flitters between some of the more heavy-handed strumming the album has to offer. Flourishes of trumpets embellish Toth’s unshackled vocals to assist in a refreshing emotive abandon.
Things slow down through the stirring sombreness of “Funny Business”. Conveyed by haunting backing vocals, the bleak nature of the mid-album sojourn offers an enticing pre-chorus chord change but not much else. Delayed violin strums offer a reawakening in opening the aptly titled “When I Awoke”. Their falling into unison with the acoustic picks blends seamlessly as a tribal feel to the swing of the percussive rhythm and chorus refrain offer a wholesome levity relative to the preceding dismay. Thematically, Toth extends on his introspection, describing the realisation of fully coming to understand someone he believed to have already known; “When I awoke I saw you through my glassy orbs, you looked like a shadow of the day before”.
“Guts To Fly” is an exhibition in Tōth’s minimalism. The vocal melodies pair with the arpeggiated acoustic plucks to anchor the track whilst embellishments of double bass and strings work their way into the proceedings. Though the arrangement garners praise, the melodies and movements of chords remain less memorable. There’s a far tighter, more quantised feel to the electronic elements inhabiting “Sentientiment”. Soft synth arpeggiations and a steady kick are garnished with slashes of guitar that allow the lilting verses to build into a frustratingly over-buoyant chorus. Emblematic of the album, there’s a glimpse of the great before a wrong turn derails the experience.
“Blessing Song” builds smoothly with synths that complement the fingerpicked guitar. Whilst the soundscape exists in an ethereal space, the folk-like nature Toth sings with instantly shatters any element of melodrama. Coupled with blunt, straightforward lyricism, this transparency and fallibility are all a part of the jovial hopelessness he aims to exude on the record; “This song is a blessing song and it’s really hard to write because I’m still sad that you’re gone”.
Closing the way things opened, “Decay” wanders among a fog of heavy reverb and trusty acoustic guitar. Toth’s vocals similarly meander among frequencies, offering an interesting alteration between that of his natural and edited vocals. Arrested in a limbo between catharsis and hopelessness, it fails to spoon-feed a parting word. Though not a bad thing, it relies heavily on the listener to derive their own conclusion.
Far from your commonplace breakup record, Alex Toth utilises some inventive arrangements that give weight to his honest musings. Devoid of hyperbole or cliché there’s enjoyable moments to be had among the forlorn pop. It’s frustrating that not all 11 songs feel as balanced in terms of their composition, however, there’s much to appreciate and even more to look forward to from Tōth.