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TOAD PRINCES : Rockers of Wet Sprocket Are More Likely to Chase Ideals Than Trappings of Fame.

August 31, 1995|MIKE BOEHM | Mike Boehm covers pop music for The Times Orange County Edition.

Don Quixote went questing to honor his Dulcinea and wound up covered with bruises and heaped with ridicule and scorn.

The band Toad the Wet Sprocket is about to end a long trek of its own on behalf of "Dulcinea," the 1994 album it named after the nonexistent lady love of the noble but delusional don. After about 175 concerts over the past year and a half, these four melodic-rock troubadours from Santa Barbara are three concerts away from the end oftheir "Dulcinea" tour. They'll be one closer after tonight's show at Irvine Meadows, on a bill topped by the Cranberries.

Unlike Don Quixote, Toad (to simplify one of the more unwieldy handles in pop history) comes to the end of its trail not a beaten laughingstock, but as one of the most successful young bands on the contemporary rock scene.

With "Dulcinea," Toad has cleared the million-sales mark for the second time in two tries (not counting the two albums it made independently before signing a major contract six years ago with Columbia Records). The band did have to change steeds last week after somebody broke into its touring bus in St. Louis and started a fire in the on-board bathroom, singer Glen Phillips reported in a recent phone interview from a Dallas hotel. Otherwise, the tour has marked another unperturbed phase in the career of a band that has followed a path more moderate than mercurial and likes it that way.

The Cervantes-inspired album title, explained Phillips, Toad's primary lyricist, "Is like an allegory for faith. I see [the Quixote allusion] as [symbolizing] believing in something and trying to move toward it. Movement is better than sitting around wishing there was something to be excited about."

Brandishing such traditional pop-rock virtues as Phillips' sturdy, melodious voice, sharp band harmonies, thoughtful lyrics and a cleanly honed rather than a noise-oriented instrumental sound, Toad has been able to keep its quest moving. If anything, Phillips said, the band has moved too much.

After the "Dulcinea" tour--and the even longer, 283-show trek that supported the band's 1991 breakthrough release, "Fear"--Phillips said, "we feel very justified if we scale down the tours a little in the future--or a lot."

But the 24-year-old singer and his band mates--bassist Dean Dinning, drummer Randy Guss and guitarist Todd Nichols--don't plan on vacationing soon. Back in Santa Barbara, they will outfit a new rehearsal space/recording studio and set about writing and recording, the part of Toad's work that Phillips likes best.

In October, the band plans to release an album of B-sides and unreleased album outtakes, dubbed "In Light Syrup." Toad has also placed "Crazy Life," a previously unreleased cut, on the new "Empire Records" film soundtrack, and will tackle "Instant Karma" on an upcoming John Lennon tribute album.

Despite its two platinum albums, Toad remains fairly free of ballyhoo and notoriety. The band is made up of stable citizens who began playing together in their teens, took their name from a Monty Python skit and took their musical cues from the likes of R.E.M., U2 and the Waterboys.

The Toad members hail from white-collar, professional families; no tales of devastating childhood dysfunction to relate, a la Kurt Cobain, Courtney Love and Eddie Vedder. Nor does Toad fit the "angry band" or "punk band" categories that have gotten the most attention over the past few years. Phillips' lyrics tend to be cerebral in their scope but emotional in their impact (notwithstanding "Nanci," a whimsical valentine to country singers Nanci Griffith and Loretta Lynn).

"Dulcinea" opens with "Fly From Heaven," a meditation on the apostle Paul's role in shaping early Christianity--a subject inspired by a book Phillips was reading on Gnosticism and the Dead Sea Scrolls. The album ends with "Reincarnation Song," a philosophic imagining of the soul's post-mortem options. Phillips said the latter song's lyrics came to him over breakfast one day while he was reading "The Doors of Perception," Aldous Huxley's account of altered states of mind.

"The scream aspect, being abrasive--we're just not good at it," Phillips said of Toad's resistance to trends. "I like Pearl Jam, I love King's X, but I don't write heavy music very well, so I stay away from it." Toad has become best-known for such wistful, harmony-driven fare as "Ocean" and "All I Want," from the "Fear" CD, and the two "Dulcinea" hits, "Something's Always Wrong" and "Fall Down."

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