If you put the "Welcome to Maine" sign on the front of your disc, you better have some damn good songs on that thing. Luckily, that's never been a problem for the McCarthys. Built with some of the longest-playing vets on the local roots scene, this is a band who write songs you still listen to 10 years later ("Jane," from 2000's self-titled debut) and wait until songs are right before releasing them. They were playing long before we called this kind of thing alt-country, but it's mostly bluesy and pop rock this time around anyway.
Hence, the new The Way Life Is is the kind of album with tunes that are rooted in genre, seem easy even, but that are consistently catchier and more interesting than they have any right to be. Part of that is simply John Davison, drummer and principal songwriter and vocalist, who's well established for penning singalongs with serious heart. "Love Is," the pop-rock-with-twang opener, wins both for lines like "love is John/Love is Yoko" and for Davison's impassioned croon. His "Blue Confessions" is probably the best track here, a dark ballad that goes past six minutes but never drags, and should be syrupy but is so well done it breaks your heart the way it's supposed to. Similarly, "Built for Comfort" is exactly the kind of Thorogood-like blues rock that's not to my taste, but the way Jonathan Wyman has captured the pair of growling guitars in opposing channels in the open charmed the pants right off me.
What's cool is that the McCarthys spread the songwriting and performance wealth so well that there are all kinds of different takes and vibes, for any taste, coalesced around this living-in-Maine exploration. Dale Holden rips a banjo through a bluegrassy "Ghost Train," echoed by Tim Emery's jangly electric guitar, and then they combine for an explosive "Take a Ride with the Devil," with snarling guitars and driven by Jimmy McGirr's punchy bass. The bridge here is killer, diving Dixieland all of a sudden with dancing piano from Scott Shuster (the newest McCarthy) and a sea of handclaps.
Emery and McGirr take on lead-vocal duties, too, on the over-the-top Jerry Lee Lewis kind of rocker "Gonna Die Twice" and the old-time Texas drinking song "I Just Pour 'Em Down," featuring Zach Ovington on the fiddle.
But the album really does come home to roost on the finishing title track, a true anthem for every Mainer who sometimes can't quite figure out what they're doing here. What do we sacrifice and what do we receive in return? With a plaintive ukulele and a rising accordion from Tim Whitehead, it's the most purely acoustic thing here and winds up being the most heartfelt.
"The way life is, ain't life the way life should be," Davison sings, desperately, "Ain't the good life promised me/It's just the way life is." When McGirr's trumpet enters? You don't have a soul if you don't fall in love with it.
Finally, it devolves into a pub-crowd singalong and if America wasn't so tight-assed, you could almost believe it was real. As for the McCarthys, you'll have no problem believing they're for real, that's for sure.
Sam Pfeifle can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
THE WAY LIFE IS | Released by the McCarthys | with the Lomax | at Bayside Bowl, in Portland | Nov 18 | mccarthysband.com