By Sarah Bennett
By Adam Lovinus
By Jena Ardell
By Nate Jackson
By Gustavo Arellano
By Nick Keppler
By Nate Jackson
By Alex Distefano
This is the house that Toys That Kill built: plywood for drapes, red and black spray paint and band stickers for load-bearing adhesive, a dirt garden and washing machine out front, a hammock in the back. No dogs, but a ghost in the back closet and a secret bathroom with the only toilet seat in the place. Nineteenth-century romantics could strum lutes among the parlor doilies; 21st-century guys need appropriate settings to plug in the guitars, and that plywood/spray paint/sticker/dirt/ghost closet turned out to provide the kind of uncrackable foundation from which you could launch a moon shot.
Toys That Kill is from San Pedro, a town built on dislocated shoulders and beer by the case from RiteAid—tough, reliable people who don't call in sick no matter how hung-over they get. Band members once told Razorcake zine that Toys—without the Buzzcocks or Jam references—was nothing but the tail end of F.Y.P (guitarists/singers/songwriters Todd Congelliere and Sean Cole's fun old band from the '90s, which people are finally not talking about so much) chasing after Cheap Trick (fun old band from Rockford, Illinois, that gets a little too pretty for their own good these days), and, yeah, there it was: dirty old town, bored teenagers, good guitar sound.
San Pedro could do Rockford. Except Cheap Trick's "Surrender" is set in the two-story houses on the nice side of the city; Toys had their own minutely observed soap operas across Gaffey, down on "Amphetamine Street" ("where the scream mutes the sound") in the mono predawn blue: "At 6 a.m., it gets a lot colder/that's why you got a head and I got a shoulder." Cute, romantic stuff, with drums (now by Jimmy) and bass (always by Chachi) that dropped through the floorboards and power-chord choruses like the first Clash album, which—when you pulled out the politics—was pretty much just the early Beatles put through some shredded speakers, which anybody could like if they didn't bug on smudging up their ears a little. The punker part sticks around when you see Toys' drummer sweat so much each show he drops a pant size, or when you ask Todd or Sean about music, and they say something really deadpan funny, but a lot of those songs were puppy-dog rockers.
And all their first shows were in that house, open to the public if you knew the right public, so set your 40 on top of the PA speaker, bounce your Converse off the couch cushions, take a smoke break in the back yard by the bonfire and drop in off the skate ramp on the way out.
That feeling was all over the first LP, The Citizen Abortion, recorded with inaugural drummer Fleps in a marathon Texas session that's still probably got a few more tracks inching toward daylight: you, in a small smoky room, drunk and singing along. Good record.
But the new album? They moved off San Pedro—maybe that's why it sounds different? And they locked in a new drummer, and our species got a lot dumber and meaner, so the band got better. We Control the Sun (as historian/anthropologist Todd Taylor might note, the first Congelliere-penned album title to break the three-words rule) is cuter only when it's sadder ("Stay around, stay around," says "Just One Jump." "Don't stop no clocks, don't count no days."); else there's an antsy edge around Toys now, minor chords nibbling on the power chords and even a sneaky Spaceman 3 drone dug in at the back of the class. And there's a grown-up disdain for stupidity, as much Minutemen in them now as Descendents, an instinct for bullshit avoidance on top of those memories of rock & roll radio (Congelliere used to have that ultrarare withdrawn Ronettes LP racked between Dylan and the white Germs album).
Sean was maybe always the John to Todd's Paul, though we feel weird and pushy typing that. His songs are darker than Todd's, their metaphors saber-based; Todd's songs could all end with question marks. Don't know if they even live in Pedro anymore, but there's still some D. Boon left that they took with them, that same foundation uncrackable: "No bombs up high/no soot-filled sky/no tanks in caves/no half-mast waves/progress well-done/when dead men run/with no smoking gun/we . . . control the sun!"Toys That Kill perform with The Max Levene Ensemble and Spirit Animals at Koo's, 540 E. Broadway, Long Beach, (562) 491-7584; www.koos.org. Fri., 7 p.m. All ages. Call for ticket prices.