Tough enough

Stroll, hop, or Run to the Mill
By SAM PFEIFLE  |  March 31, 2010

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ROOTS MUSIC, OUTSIDE THE BOX The Toughcats.

It’s hard to do genuinely new things with roots music, but the Toughcats have proven with their second album what everybody suspected after hearing their first: They are one of the most creative and inventive bands going today. They manage to be artsy, melodic, down-to-earth, accessible, and a hell of a lot of fun all at the same time — and it’s pretty hard to sound both ancient and contemporary at the same time, but they pull that off, too.

A trio from North Haven, the Toughcats with Run to the Mill deliver on the promise of their debut Pinata by showing they’re no one-trick cats. While they earned their reputation for being a good time with some crazed drumming (on a suitcase-centric kit) from Jake Greenlaw and high-energy banjo from Colin Gulley, with their sophomore effort they’ve shown a wide range of songwriting inclinations, including a penchant for thoughtful ballads, and a settling into a unique aesthetic that’s incredibly endearing.

They open with “Honk Town” and it is pretty dang honky-tonk, with their trademark shuffle, led by Greenlaw, who has a distinctive style even when he’s not doing his manic thing. And manic is much less in evidence on this album, replaced by more frequent harmonic “ooh-ooh” backing vocals, sweet voices that may be slightly ironic. It’s sometimes hard to tell when they’re being serious and when they’re not. They just sort of have goofy personalities. Like when they use the woodblock here, it’s almost like a laugh as percussion.

Still, this is the sort of thing you’ve come to expect from the Toughcats, especially with Joe Nelson’s resonator guitar lead in the second half, mic’d closely and mixed to the top so you can hear every metallic piece of twang.

“Sunlight” and “Fool,” however, are new and different in a welcome way, featuring breathy and textured lead vocals, a dreamy and laidback pop. The first features a bluesy strut from Gulley in the first break. He’s got a distinctive style, too, a mix between the Scruggs-style roll and a more guitar-like flatpick. The second has a real old-timey folk feel in the pacing and vocals that sound older than dust, just a bit more body than a whisper: “I got stuck on that caboose, and pinned by her nails/I fell for her so easy, I was tangled in her rails/The dogs and cats did laugh, right behind my backyard/I was in that old school cap, drifting like a barge.” It’s a simple song that I could listen to 100 times in a row and still find new things to like. It’s a little like the Great Lake Swimmers in its utter self-assuredness, but they never get as fey as that. The Toughcats manage to give us earthiness and authenticity that makes them one of the realest bands I’ve heard in a long time.

They make good choices all over the place: the saxophone broke in the quick, two-minute “Everytime;” the glockenspiel that warms “Harlet Marie;” the bowed banjo in the utterly ironic “Happy Day.” That latter songs features lyrics about it being “such a wondrous day,” but opens with a plod and that haunting wail of the bow across the banjo strings, just on the edge of nails on the chalkboard. Then it moves, halfway through, into a straight-up polka, not far from “Hora” on the Kolosko/Dimow record I reviewed last week. It also features another great lead from Nelson, who works the low end of his instrument particularly well, which is somewhat rare in a guitar player.

Maybe the biggest change is in Greenlaw, who shows a far superior feel for subtle fills and back-beat, producing an atmosphere at times with his snare and cymbal like the percussion is being created by the elements themselves. Even when the Toughcats ramp things up, as on the instrumental “Bluegoose,” everything seems so much more in control. While people might miss some of the wild feel of the first record, that inclination that things might run off the rails, I appreciate the extra nuance and scripting.

“Joshua Chamberlain,” another instrumental, is a great contrast, with a poppy intro that turns into a rolling banjo lick, kind of Bela Fleck in its rhythm and drive, then moves into a quiet breakdown. When it builds back up it’s like a Rocky theme song, an incentive to get up off the mat.

By the time Nelson brings a piano into the mix for a couple songs late in the album, they’ve established such an open atmosphere that you’re ready for anything, and the mix of the piano and banjo lines late in “In the Middle” is a harmony you don’t hear often.

There’s enough to grab onto here that everyone will likely bring their own musical backgrounds to the album and get something else out of it. Just like the saw-dusty (think Micah Blue Smaldone) finishing song, “Somebody Old,” says: “Everyone will need somebody new/And everyone will need somebody old.” The Toughcats manage to be both and neither.<0x00A0><cs:7><cbs:-0.9>^<cbs:><cs:>

Sam Pfeifle can be reached at sam_pfeifle@yahoo.com.

RUN TO THE MILL | Released by the Toughcats | at the Liberal Cup, in Hallowell | April 1 |
www.toughcats.com

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