As referenced in my recent review of Steve Lukather’s “I Found the Sun Again,” the long battered but not-sunk-yet ship of Toto has seen rough waters over the past couple years. The band is no stranger to dark clouds, whether they originated from jaded critics, chronic issues with lead singers or crippling legal disputes. Toto caught a strong burst of fresh wind when their sails were filled by a resurgence of popularity thanks to Weezer’s cover of “Africa” in 2018 , which exploded and exposed a new generation to the classic rock song and record that won six Grammys in 1982.
Their “40 Trips Around the Sun” anniversary tour in tandem with the “All In” box set were selling well until a lawsuit filed by the widow of the late Toto drummer, Jeff Porcaro, knocked the wind out of their sails and brought the ship to a screeching halt.
Tensions mounted and the band announced it would be ending. It had been a long journey and the crew of the ship looked quite different from when it embarked on its maiden voyage in 1978 when its debut self-titled record featuring the radio hit, “Hold the Line,” began towing the line.
Jeff Porcaro (drums) passed away unexpectedly in 1992. His brother, Mike (bass), succumbed to ALS in 2015. The remaining brother, Steve, had left the band in 1987 and returned in 2010 for a short reunion that never ended until the ship ran aground with the lawsuit. Founding pianist David Paich stepped down a few years ago due to health concerns, and Toto has been through multiple lead singers over the years. Joseph Williams, son of Star Wars famed composer/conductor John Williams, recorded a pair of strong records with the band in the mid 80s before departing for personal reasons. He returned when Steve Porcaro did for the 2010 tour, and has been a source of stability since. So much so that as it was announced that the good ship TOTO would yet again be embarking on a new tour this year, it was Steve Lukather and Joseph Williams alone who were left at the helm, with a new cast of support crew filling out their sound.
Coupled with that announcement is the release of simultaneous solo recordings from each of the skippers. Lukather released a live sounding diverse record that prioritized spontaneity and expediency. Williams, on the other hand, has opted for a more meticulously produced and assembled recording. Toto records have typically walked the lines between rock and pop, and whereas Lukather’s solo record reveals the rock throttle, Williams’ demonstrates a more sedated side. What some might write off as easy listening, another would call a polished, accessible experience steeped in the west coast tradition with some modern recording touches.
The record opens with “Never Saw You Coming,” with Williams himself handling piano, synths, drums, bass (prog) & vocals duties. Despite this fact, the slow rolling, slinky track sounds surprisingly organic, and props go out to Lenny Castro on percussion and Mike Landau on guitar for making this sound very much like a song that could have comfortably fit on a classic Toto record. Williams deftly displays age-defying vocal diversity and range, as well as strong production skills. Sonically, the record sounds really well-recorded and mixed with layers of tracks and effects revealing themselves with both clarity and depth.
The second track, “Liberty Man,” also has a classic Toto vibe to it, with an appearance from former Toto drummer Simon Phillips, who always brings a rock-solid groove and a booming sound on the kit. Bass is handled by the legendary Leland Sklar, who filled in on bass for Toto when Mike Porcaro had to depart. Like much of the record, this song is a spotlight for Williams clever harmonies and layered vocals, which sound smooth one moment and strong the next. It’s a pleasant listen in part due to its deft execution.
“Denizen Tenant” is an odd track, both in title and tone. The lyrics are cryptic, and the song structure is more work to take in initially. Additional listens reveal the creative vocal work, with Williams mimicking a horn sound in sections. This track feels more computer-laced and less natural than the opener, which moves away from the Toto vibe and into more experimental territory for Williams.
Following up with another cryptic track title is “Wilma Fingadoux,” which also sounds more modern pop and less classic Toto, but this track is instantly accessible and sounds like it would belong on the airwaves of today’s top pop radio stations. It’s a simple track, with some modern production techniques, plus the unexpected addition of a cello, that results in a safe, smooth pop listen. Perhaps too tame for a listener looking to rock, but still a competent execution of what it was meant to be.
“Black Dahlia” has a different sound to all that’s come before, perhaps in part due to it being arranged and produced by Jay Gruska, rather than Williams. This is another modern sounding pop track that is not guitar based but one that spotlights Williams harmonies in a shiny format that hint at a Steely Dan vibe. Toto founder David Paich makes an impressive contribution on the Hammond B3 here.
Next up is a Peter Gabriel cover, “Don’t Give Up.” Williams’ treatment makes the song less eclectic and a bit brighter and more hopeful than the melancholic original. The original Kate Bush lines are handled solidly by Williams’ daughter, Hanna Ruick, and the track takes on a bit of a gospel vibe that is uplifting and pleasant, though admittedly still less remarkable than the original.
“The Dream” has a pretty classic West Coast feel with a bit more drive that still remains glossy. In fact, it would play really well with the top down driving along the PCH in a sunny, breezy afternoon. Easy rolling, fun and light. Once again, Williams’ multi-layered background vocals reveal a smooth, signature sound—one that was tapped by Disney years ago as the adult voice of Simba in The Lion King’s classics “Hakuna Matata” and “Can You Feel the Love Tonight.”
The next track, “Remember Her,” returns listeners to the Toto mood, not only due to its structure, but more notably the strong contributions of Steve Lukather on guitar and Lenny Castro on percussion. This catchy tune rolls more than it rocks, like much of the record, but it’s a nice listen and a tribute to Williams’ songwriting prowess, which is taking center stage on this recording.
“No Lessons” is a style shift, piano based ballad written by Jay Gruska, with some interesting lyrics written by Jay’s wife Denise, who Williams claims were practically autobiographical. It’s a “turned inward” reflective tune that laments the unexpected hard knocks of life that don’t always provide learning opportunities. Sometimes things are just hard. This tune would fit well late at night in a smoky night club, with a nice touch from Steve Tavaglione on EWI muted horn.
“Mistress Winter’s Jump” is a Steve Overton composition, who also co-wrote “Denizen Tenant,” and it shares a bit of that song’s quirkiness that Williams refers to as an Irish swashbuckling vibe. Lenny Castro’s percussion holds this thing together and the lyrics are more of a puzzle than most of what’s on this record. It’s another light listen that does no harm but also doesn’t inspire much.
Next up, Williams takes on another cover, this time The Beatles’ “If I Fell” with additional vocal support from band pal Steve Lukather. These two pair very well vocally and much like the magic they have created in Toto and on some of Lukather’s solo efforts, their voices compliment each other throughout this short, well paved tribute to Lennon and McCartney.
Wrapping up the record is “World Broken,” one of the strongest tracks that showcases Joseph’s voice and once again features contributions from Lenny Castro and Steve Lukather that swing this more toward the pop side of Toto in a pleasantly familiar way.
Taken in light of Steve Lukather’s companion solo effort, Williams and Lukather represent the ying and yang of Toto’s classic pop/rock hybrid sound. Williams certainly brings more pop than rock to this record, making this a potentially a lighter listen than some may prefer, but his clever vocals and pristine production make this is pleasant contribution that is more consistent and personal sounding than most of his past solo efforts. “All aboard the good ship Toto!” when it hopefully leaves port and we get back to enjoying live music again. Lukather and Williams still have something worth seeing.
Released By: Mascot Label Group
Release Date: February 26th, 2021
- Joseph Williams / Vocals
“Denizen Tenant” track-listing
- Never Saw You Coming
- Liberty Man
- Denizen Tenant
- Wilma Fingadoux
- Black Dahlia (feat. David Paich)
- Don’t Give Up (feat. Hannah Ruick)
- The Dream
- Remember Her (feat. Steve Lukather)
- No Lessons
- Mistress Winter’s Jump
- If I Fell (feat. Steve Lukather)
- World Broken
Joseph Williams take a greater share of ownership and performance on his latest solo record, producing a pleasant pop collection of tunes that benefit from some strategic contributions of his friends and some unique arrangements of his layered vocals.