Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Toiling Midgets-Son

It's been my contention for many years that if you want to understand Toiling Midget's music, just stand at the corner of 3rd St. and Harrison St. in San Francisco, face west, and watch the fog roll over Diamond Heights. The off-whites, creams, and pastels of the houses on that large hill reflect back on the gray tones of the fog, making for a shimmery light that seems to move both slowly and with quickness. It's a very odd thing to see. Much like that view, Toiling Midget's music is often a roiling, muted soup, some sounds moving fast, others more slowly, all aspects swirling together hypnotically.
Released by Matador in far off 1992, Son is likely that last Toiling Midgets studio release. What to make of this apparent swan song?
For starters, Son does not feature the bizarre singing and lyrics of Ricky Williams. Mark Eitzel does a pretty good job filling in for him. Mark's tenor crooning is similar to Ricky's, slightly more traditionally musical than the latter's crazed whooping. Ricky's vocals always sound other worldly to me, truly alien and bizarre. In contrast, Eitzel's vocals come across as more world weary, sounding not as if they come not from the incomprehensible mental spaces inhabited by Williams, but from a more profane perspective. Still, his voice fits with the music, and doesn't detract from the overall sound. As with the vocal timbres, the lyrics differ from the perspectives of their origins. Eitzel's lyrics are much more objective than Ricky's subjective inner landscape portraits, describing characters and relationships from a distance that feels bitter and cold. There is a darkness to his concerns that sits right with the moody sound the Midgets conjure up.
Paul Hood and Craig Gray are just about the best guitar tandem ever. So often, bands with two guitar players just sound crowded, as both will play identical riffs. Hood and Gray never fall into that trap. Instead, the listener is treated to the sound of Hood's brilliant cyclic melodic riffing; it's always tuneful, yet somehow heavy, and neither aspect ever seems forced or cliched. His playing on Son sounds particularly inspired, the tones well recorded and up front in the mix. Atop Hood's foundation, Gray colors the music with cool feedback, noise, and the occasional unison riff. His sounds are trippy and strange, giving abstraction to the tunes. There are songs on Son in which Gray's playing, if isolated from the mix, could easily go with anything played by Throbbing Gristle or Wolf Eyes. These two are never mentioned in written "Guitar Greats" articles, and that's a damn shame. They executed an amazing concept for a lot of years, one that was truly original, and get no credit for it. On Son their guitars spar, collide, and intertwine, all the time very musically. Renaldo and Moore are the closest comparison I've got, but Gray and Hood do it better, in my opinion.
All great guitar sounds need a complimentary rhythm section, and on Son, Hood and Grays' playing gets that is spades from drummer Tim Mooney and bassist Karl J. Goldring. Here we find honest to God rhythm, in the way bassist and drummer push and pull the tunes, a tight unit, flowing together to form climactic highs and tense lows. They never sound anything less than completely engaged in the songs, and never fall into rote rhythms. Son's songs come across as organic entities, and much of this is due to the way that Mooney and Goldring play off of each other. Mooney's simple kit playing, especially his ride cymbal sound, is exemplary. It's a style without peer, and deserves more appreciation than it gets. Goldring does a great job of holding down the tunes, grounding the guitar voices with it's deep Fender Jazz tones.
Extra shading for some of the songs on Son is provided by strummed acoustic (12 string?) guitar, symphonic strings, and what in one song sounds like operatic tenor singing. These elements, along with the classic Toiling Midgets ethereal guitar voice, make for a great, under appreciated gem of a recording. Son's beauty lies within it's song's clashing and rolling instrumental interplay. Peer deep into it's foggy interior, and find yourself transfixed.


Michael said...

I think I can imagine standing at that street corner, too. Yes.

Question: are you sure about the roles of Paul & Craig here? I've never seen em play live, and so I've always gone by what Paul told me: "He [Craig] was the rhythm guitarist, and I did all the whacked stuff. What we used to tell people was that Craig played time, and I played space."

Also: have you heard any of the live stuff from around this time they've made downloadable for sale on MySpace? At least 2 full shows with Mark, both great.

Disaster Amnesiac said...

From what I've seen, Paul seems to play the lead part, and Craig colors. Dunno, maybe I'm wrong! Whoops. Yeah, I need to download that stuff from the Paradise Lounge. That record totally reminds me of SF, more than just about any other.

tkmallon said...

Lisa Davis played all the bass on Son, even though Joe Goldring's name is on the record. Lisa was long gone by the time Son was released -- Matador held the finished lp for more than a year.

Mark Pino said...

I am not sure how tkmallon's post eluded me until today, three and one half years later, but.......
Man, this post was full of errors. My bad. I truly LOVE this record, though. One time I bumped into Tim Mooney at Tiny Telephone, and insisted that he sign my cassette tape cover of Son. Anyway.