To hear the name “TobyMac” is as familiar to me as breathing. Jesus Freak was, is, and always will be standard that music is judged against. Say what you will. “It’s dated!” “It’s Christain rock!” “It’s….Jesus Freak! This is 2015!” No matter. That record shaped the foundation that my love for music firmly stands on. TobyMac was only part of the trio alongside Michael Tait and Kevin Max, but while looking at reviewing an artist’s entire solo discography, he simply seemed like the obvious choice to start with. He hasn’t put out any EPs along the way (like Kevin Max), or started a full new band that couldn’t simply be considered solo (like Michael Tait). Heck, those small items aside; he didn’t become the front man for freakin’ Audio Adrenaline or Newsboys like his former bandmates did!
Let’s get down to it. Toby’s discography ranked six to one.
Whew. I’m glad we’ve got Tonight and Eye On It out of the way. Let’s move on to Welcome To Diverse City; the proof that the sophomore slump was not something that Toby was going to succumb to when he started his solo career.
Welcome To Diverse City may come in at number four on this list, but it’s anything but a subpar recording. A noticeable departure from the heaviness that abounded on Momentum, album opener Hey Now sets the record off with a tone that is pure soul/pop-rock, with a danceable bass groove that was certainly intended to draw on a larger audience than Get The Party Started was ever going to be able to do, and he makes no secret of using this formula on a large majority of the record. He balances easy-to-write CCM with bits of 80s slightly-dark-wave (Burn For You), deep south funk (Diverse City), and almost white-out ambiance (Atmosphere).
One of my favorites here is Phenomenon, which appears extremely late in the record, despite it being one of the first tracks released to the public. Its style is incredibly influenced by its co-writer; Earthsuit and Mute Math’s Paul Meany. Once you know that fact and listen to the track, you can’t un-hear it with its hip-hop/rock/electronica elements. In a complete one-eighty, the pop-rock of Gone is about as simple of a song as one could craft. However, there’s a reason that some of the best songs are uncomplicated and without all the extra bells and whistles, and this track stands as a testament to that idea.
There’s some other fun, but common, fare here that still warrants your attention. Catchafire (Whoopsi-Daisy) and The Slam both suffer from some less-than-mature lyricism, and have been done better stylistically on other records in his catalog. However, even with that being said, they’re far from filler, and are worthy of the record that Toby has crafted – they’ve simply just been done better elsewhere. The same could be said of album closer Gotta Go, which is so quick and sugary that one could almost mistake it for being accidently tacked on to the end of the record, with it sounding very out of place.
The inclusion of Ill-M-I, a cover track originally recorded by the unparalleled Soul-Junk, is pure genius. Its off-kilter style is given just enough of a pop-glaze to sound relatable on the record without being segregating, and adds a welcome layer of uniqueness to the overall tracklist. It’s decisions like these that make Toby great at making records that are at the complete opposite end of the spectrum of ones that people would complain that “it sounds the same the whole way through”. To balance the likes of Getaway Car and Stories (Down To The Bottom) and still make them sound like they are coming from the same artist (which is certainly accomplished) speaks volumes.
One cannot finish off writing about Portable Sounds without mentioning the fact that even if this record only had one track on it, it world have been worthwhile to purchase. What track, you ask? Included at the very end – track sixteen – is a remix of Atmosphere that features none other than Kevin Max and Michael Tait, bringing dc Talk back together for only the second time (as of this record’s release) since their hiatus that started in the year two-thousand (the other was two-thousand-two’s Let’s Roll, which benefited children affected by the terrorist attack on September 11th, 2001). The remix of Atmosphere brings a very slight grunge vibe to the mix, that sounds very much like the nineteen-ninety-five / Jesus Freak era, and is a completely welcome addition for those of us who know that the best thing that ever happened to faith-based music ended (or has it?!) way too soon.
As I said, anything but a sophomore slump. Lyrical maturity is the biggest complaint, but not in any form that makes it unlistenable. Three more records to go: Portable Sounds, Momentum, and This Is Not A Test.
If you had to listen to two tracks (apart from the Atmosphere Remix): Phenomenon / Burn For You