In one of the earliest Disaster Amnesiac columns, I compared the the music of Toiling Midgets to the quality of reflected and refracted light in San Francisco. The shimmery opaqueness of both has not changed in quality in the interim. Toiling Midgets personal circumstances have changed quite drastically since that time, however, with the passing of Tim Mooney and Tom Mallon, along with other big life changes for members of the group. As such, it makes sense that some sort of retrospective from this great band be collected. Thankfully, Finland's Full Contact Records has done just that with A Smaller Life, which collects demo and live recordings from Toiling Midgets entire history, a span of well over thirty years now.
The great thing about hearing demo recordings is that they show a band's innermost thoughts. By that, Disaster Amnesiac means that they reveal the sounds and approaches to making them that are the most personal; more often than not, recordings such as these are never meant to be shared further than with the most inner-circle of the group, and thereby evince the kind of raw emotional and aesthetic revealing that would likely be done away with, or smoothed over, once the final product is prepared for public presentation. Demo recordings often sound delightfully unrestrained. Listening to A Smaller Life, I revel in the breadth and scope that Toiling Midgets were pondering as they played, along with, of course, their "standard", incredible sounds.
Standout examples of the latter would be early versions of tunes such as Do the Incendiary, Warehouse, and the gorgeous Caverns II. These songs feature Toiling Midgets signature twinned guitar voices that bounce off of each other with eloquently chiming conversational cross talk, heavy rhythmic patterns from the drums, and taut bass lines that carry it all forward. Mid-period songs like EQ Plex and The Brush (more stunning beauty here) and the joyous Mr. Spine show the group developing and refining their sounds from the initial template. The strength of their conception is bearing serious musical fruits here, as the group plays with an interconnected lock that is seriously powerful and moving to hear.
Along with their instrumentals, Toiling Midgets always had (have?) a few great vocal tracks thrown in. Disaster Amnesiac figures that, early on, it had to do with whether or not Ricky Williams would show up; on If You Choose to Live, he does indeed appear, giving spooky recitation of his very singular psychic visions. On Wolf Blitzer and Why Can't We? his sounds are the most ripped Punk Rock of his career, and on Pumice the intimacy is almost frightening. Mark Eitzel hits some serious highs on the rocking, heavy, To Die. I wonder why this one was left off of Son?
Moving into the later years, I get more of a darkened, industrialized feel to the songs; Disaster Amnesiac feels that the 1990's were a pretty heavy emotional time in society, much more so than many will ever likely let on, and Toiling Midgets music from this period seems to reflect that. Some sort of additional weight is injected into all of the forms. Perhaps this simply has to do with better mic capture as Mallon in particular refined his craft, but anyway it's notable.
Also of note within the later oeuvre is the tasteful addition of viola on tracks such as Train Set and Pumice and keyboards on No, Paul, No, the ass kicking thrill ride of Andi, and the ethereal Yakuza Serenade. Their timbres add to and enhance these songs' moods in fascinating ways. Paul Hood and Craig Gray show their continuing guitar development on Broken, presumably one of the most recent demos collected here. After it all, their initial spark remains, and only flames brighter and with even more clarity.
To add to this already long list of compelling listening, Disaster Amnesiac must also note tunes such as synthesizer/percussion/Ricky experiment, worthy of Tuxedomoon or Pink Section, of So He Sayeth and the haunting Texas Hills Country of Train Set. These ones offer glimpses of the mentioned inner, private aesthetic work outs that happen below the surface of a band's public face. As a Toiling Midgets fan, I am grateful for them.
Disaster Amnesiac does not really believe in or pay attention to the Grammy system. Having said that, though, I'd seriously like to nominate Full Contact Records for Best Reissue, for the absolutely stellar job that they've done with Toiling Midgets on A Smaller Life. Printed on high quality paper, and filled with not only first rate Rock music but amazing archival photos and detailed notes, this LP is totally worthy of that, and even higher, honors. I'd also admonish you, the listener, to find it before it sells out. Chances are, those that have copies will NOT be letting go of them any time soon!