It’s been 18 years since New Zealand’s Shihad debuted with Chum, and now frontman and chief songwriter Jon Toogood is striking out on his own with a solo side project called The Adults. At this point in Toogood’s history, his music has fallen under a few different umbrellas, all of them sort of analogous: alt, industrial, hard, anthemic and MOR rock.
Though he dabbled with softer, electro-tinged material on Shihad’s 2008 release Beautiful Machine, Toogood is still essentially a pop-rock musician whose accessible style has manifested as a more muscular facet of NZ rock. The idea of the affable, down-to-earth Toogood generating a record grounded in indie-rock, but spinning out into pastoral acoustic-folk, psychedelic rock, R&B, funk and whatever else strikes his fancy, isn’t exactly jaw-dropping. That being said, if his new album is to be considered pleasantly surprising, it has little to do with the surface aesthetics, and much more to do with how accomplished it is.
Backed by a star-studded ensemble, including Straitjacket Fits frontman and indie figurehead Shayne Carter, former Fur Patrol frontwoman Julia Deans and pop-songstress Anika Moa (it was mixed by former Salmonella Dub frontman Tiki Taane), these 12 collaborations are a sometimes-fascinating voyage through the classier end of indie-pop, R&B and ultraviolet stoner/psych dirge over the past decade. More importantly, they add much needed focus to Toogood’s sometime insipid mix of pop and smooth rock. Aside from being seemingly tailor-made for the paper-thin adult contemporary market and despite a few brief lulls, The Adults is as likeable as it is adroit.
Yet even on the album’s best songs, Toogood sometimes has trouble reconciling his inner-hack with his better judgment, as is the case with single ‘One Million Ways’. Emerging initially from a viscous electronic fluid, the song quickly takes shape as a bombastic electro-glam number about “big signs”, being “totally jaded” and “knowing you could do better”. Indeed, it is The Adult’s penchant for such black-and-white extremes – life and death, love and lust, dreams and reality – with little regard for any shades of grey, that makes their ballads feel simpering and their rockers feel cursory. Standard alterna-pop tune ‘A Part of Me’ is nearly done in by a cringeworthy verse hanging on the lyrics, “A part of me/Apart from you.” Likewise, ‘Up and Gone’ repurposes several Screamadelica-era Primal Scream signifiers but squanders them all on a stupid, sore-thumb chorus chant: “You don’t know what you’ve got/Until it’s up and gone.”
That being said, the more experimental, up-tempo tracks here tend to be light years better than their leaden counterparts. Single ‘Nothing To Lose’ is the real keeper, with Toogood establishing a steady groove with a female vocal hook (courtesy of hip-hop songstress Ladi6), funked-out bass and string loops. It’s propulsive and clean, even when Toogood starts to deconstruct and chop away at all the details.
Ultimately, this is not the music of one man trying to be cool, rather the work of a veteran unafraid to express mature emotions with an appropriate level of musical depth and nuance. There is certainly more thrill to be found when Toogood is acting out as opposed to simply developing styles and themes already in his playbook, and yet there is something rather pleasing about hearing a musician sound so comfortable in his own skin. Even if you don’t connect with the music on The Adults you may very well come away from the record envying his relaxed self-assurance. Being a chilled-out grown-up may not always be exciting, but it’s certainly something to admire.
by Jen Peterson-Ward