BUILDING UP Toughcats expand their repertoire, to great effect.
Damn if it isn't fun to watch a band evolve. To think people were calling Toughcats a bluegrass band! Cuz, you know, they have a banjo player. What used to be an energetic three-piece stringband with a drummer playing a gimmicky kit is now a fully formulated alt-country/indie pop affair, with impeccable guitar tone and a drummer who's developed a style and sound designed directly for the two guys standing in front of him.
Jake Greenlaw's use of brushes on his snare and high hat, combined with the soft thump of foot pedal against suitcase-for-bass-drum, creates a muted low end atop which the electrified strings of Colin Gulley and Joe Nelson can sit, keeping the high-end treble all to themselves. It's a sound they started to explore with 2010's Run to the Mill, but maybe weren't quite ready to fully embrace, perhaps clinging to some notion of acoustic purity.
The difference for their third release, Woodenball, is that Nelson and Gulley have eschewed almost entirely the crisp twang of acoustic strings and delved deep into the rounded edges of electrification and amplification (even busting out an electric banjo), cycling around one another until you can hardly tell where one instrument starts and the next ends. With no bass, they even make sure to keep a grappling hook sunk deep into the low end as they make their forays, so as not to drift away into noodling oblivion.
They've also continued to mine "oooh-ahh" backing vocals and other Beach Boys-like pop constructions, creating a mood like summer seen through Instagram, muted and nostalgic and, yeah, kinda hip.
Best is that they're not forcing it. From the opening sounds of oars pulling a rowboat to the nautical references peppered through the lyrics they continue their Maine islanders vibe, but leave enough room for the listener to inject his or her own narrative. Who is the second person "you" in the invective-with-a-smile "Big, Big Hole"?
"Just a crazy chick" with a "big, big hole at the bottom of your soul." We all know one of those.
How do we remember the "Some Old Days" that are introduced with a falsetto whisper? When they're joined by a reserved banjo that manages to stay completely subtle, waiting for a final bridge to open up into a strutting, electric Velvet Underground vibe, they're a heady mix of easy victories and brilliant mistakes.
Good times. Bad times. We've all seen our share.
The mania that once ruled the band's songwriting has been replaced by a reservedness that makes the energetic flourishes more noticeable. The ramp-up that finishes the whimsical "Lovin' a Lot" is prefaced by a "whew!" as punctuation, à la Theodore Treehouse, with whom Toughcats share an aesthetic. "Thunderbird" opens like a Spoon song, then closes with a grouping of four descending blasts of sound and melodic riffing that's delicious.
And the paired electric guitars that open "Ride the Storm" would be an even better blues injection if they didn't sound so much like that erectile dysfunction commercial with the guy on the sailboat. (Those who don't watch television: Never mind.)