It's that dangerous feeling of not being fully in control of my imagination that dominates my experience with Toys, by Timothy McGaw. It calls up childhood like it never left and invites it back to play, on somewhat more sophisticated grounds than before. The result is a delightfully eccentric thirty seven minutes of niche pop.
Toys is a concept album about childhood that celebrates that time of life without dumbing itself down; it's the aural equivalent of an expedition to the attic where your parents used to hide the Christmas presents, or any of the other nooks and crannies that fascinated us as children. Adults can look back on those times and be amazed, not only by the mysteries themselves but by their own amazement.
Most of what makes Toys tick is the arrangements, which chart a broad spread of moods. From joyful abandon to suspicious dread, accompanied always by innocent curiosity, emotions stand front and center on this album. They come in bright colors on the strains of unusual instruments, and take on lives of their own; most of these songs move freely in and out of traditional pop structures.
About a quarter of the tracks are instrumental, and many of the songs with vocals have pronounced instrumental sections; McGaw's talent as an arranger keeps these moments vital and listenable. The entire album flows together with clever segues and transitions, and bits of melody are reprised throughout. Toys is well-planned and executed brilliantly; there's nothing extraneous to distract from the main idea.
McGaw has a good singing voice; not an intrinsically great one, but used effectively and placed well in the context of his songs. Multi-tracked harmonies and standout melodies (particularly on the songs "I Just Want to Go Home" and "Rivals") imbue Toys with the relaxed vibe of a vocal band like the Beach Boys, though to my knowledge he's singing all the parts himself.
In fact, McGaw is a self-professed fan of Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys, and their influence extends beyond his not-infrequent use of falsetto. The presence of unconventional instruments like harpsichords, jaw harps, and bass harmonicas, alongside strong melodic bass lines, gives Toys a kind of family resemblance with Wilson's production masterpieces, Smile and Pet Sounds. The instrumental "Daydreaming of Other Places," in particular, is strongly reminiscent of the Pet Sounds track "Let's Go Away For a While." None of this is to imply that McGaw lacks originality; his own sense of humor is highly evident in every song. This is just the tradition he's working in: retro, colorful, and supremely joy-oriented, even when it grapples with darkness.
Toys is McGaw's debut album, produced and released independently and available (so far) only in digital form. I think I was lucky to find it; this album has been out for less than a month, and it is probably unlikely to rocket to the top of the charts. But it's beautiful and sweet, and it deserves to be heard; anyone who ever had a childish imagination could find something to relate to here. With Spotify or a digital music store like iTunes, access is easy, but sadly it must compete for attention.
Consuming and listening to music can be about absorbing whatever happens to be in the air around you, or it can be about chance discovery and taking risks. Believe me, in this case the latter is worth the effort.