Tough and Tumble

A new album of rough ones from the Toughcats
By SAM PFEIFLE  |  June 25, 2014

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If local music scenes were like baseball, there’d be blogs you could visit for a breakdown of all the statistics: average musicians per band, albums recorded per capita, average years on the scene per band.

And in this latter category Portland would rank in the Top 10, I’m confident. Maybe the best indication of the talent that has coagulated here is the sheer number of bands who make it to their fourth, fifth, sixth albums. Bands in business for 10 years? Pfft. There are all kinds of them in this town.

Including, now, the Toughcats, a three-piece who have endured by virtue of unique instrumentation and a songwriting and performance style that are consistently interesting. This week, the band North Haven island begat release their fourth full-length album, Rough Ones, and it’s just the kind of thing you’d hope for from musicians who’ve attended more than a single rodeo. 

Recorded and mixed over the course of a weekend this past winter, with Ron Harrity on the boards at Forest City Studios in South Portland, this is something of a pullback from 2012’s Woodenball, where they mixed in a more electrified element. The feel is very live, the sound consistent, and the album to the point. The 12 songs resolve in 34 minutes, and all but two are under three minutes. 

They may, in fact, remind you often of seminal ’60s rock, with catchy choruses and easy melodies you can grab onto. Especially when drummer Jake Greenlaw is doing the writing and singing. His stripped-down kit is probably the most prominent it’s ever been, something indicated right out of the gate, when “Call My Love” fires in with a big bass-snare kick that will make you regret leaving your volume settings too high from a previous listen and maybe remind you of the Police doing “Next to You.”

It’s never quite as aggressive as that, though, and the call-and-response in the chorus and the late-song jam are just dying for a house party of people who want to get down. Wanna shake your ass? “Charge!” is a raging jam of an instrumental that’s especially Toughcats-esque, with banjo-player Colin Gulley driving an Scruggs-style right hand and Joe Nelson flat-out smoking his resonator guitar with low-end action like a four-cylinder engine.

The build to crescendo is just short of Phish’s shamelessness and Greenlaw even gives us a couple classic screams in the background. Hard not to love.

The Toughcats can do nuanced, too, though, and Nelson’s “Never Goodbye” is a feel-good throwback that could sit on Tom Petty’s Wildflowers, with that East Coast summer sound. It’s a post-Springsteen kind of rock, bringing in the weariness of the common man who’s nonetheless content with his lot: “Let’s drive for days in summer/ And hold onto the mysteries.” Gully delivers some great pull-offs in the banjo break and a repeating up-stroke strum.

Greenlaw, with a rasp that grows on you, grabs some highlights with the chorus to “In the Sun” — “All you gotta do is appear/ Living for your heart is just no big deal” — which is catchy enough to keep the song going strong through three full verses, pre-choruses, and choruses, plus an instrumental break. 

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