Click to hear: “Out On The Ocean”
You’ve gotta root for The Toughcats. The unassuming acoustic trio from the island of North Haven, Maine, seem like the nicest guys you could hope to meet. I mean, just look at ‘em…
That’s drummer Jake Greenlaw in the center, looking like he’s about to burst out laughing during his first official band-photo shoot. His kit includes a suitcase and pieces of scrap metal, and during live shows, he pounds away at his percussion and luggage with Muppet-like abandon. How endearing is that?
At left is guitarist and lead vocalist Joe Nelson. He also plays the ukulele, that most adorable of instruments. And at right is Colin Gulley, who plays banjo and mandolin. Again, just look at him. What a nice guy he must be.
The Toughcats’ good karma has brought some good breaks their way. They made news in the cynical world of indie rock last fall when they teamed up with San Francisco art-rock darlings Deerhoof to help produce a children’s performance at the island’s tiny school. Called the Milk Man Ballet, the work is based on Deerhoof’s 2004 album Milk Man, and was such a hit it’s scheduled to be performed on North Haven again this summer.
And get this: After The Toughcats posted a couple tunes on their MySpace page, legendary alt-rock musician and producer Kramer took notice and offered to master the band’s first official album, Piñata.
What’s next, a world tour with Ween?
Well, not so fast.
The Toughcats are musically talented guys who compose short, catchy songs blending bluegrass, folk, ragtime and rock. Piñata occasionally conjures the moonshine-sippin’, backwoods vibe of Taj Mahal’s De Ole Folks at Home. Like Taj, The Toughcats bend and borrow from traditional genres with ease. Yet Greenlaw’s inventive brushwork, coupled with the group’s energy and sense of mischief, keeps the material sounding modern and original.
There are some nice surprises, as on the opening track, “Out On The Ocean,” when the band slips into the third-person to declare, “Toughcats don’t take no shit.” Buoyed by a spirited shuffle popularized during Prohibition, the lyric is delivered with a wink, and soon Gulley’s tearing off a fierce banjo solo and the song is winding up into its clever, vaudevillian coda.
The rollicking “043″ begins with Nelson’s rockin’ resonator guitar riffs and builds into a bouncy, bluegrass hay ride with an unexpectedly funky twist in the middle. And “Lantern” is two-minutes of countrified pop goodness with a refreshingly breezy chorus.
Too bad I can’t understand a word of it.
That’s this record’s big drawback. Nelson sings like he’s got a shot of whiskey in his mouth most of the time. Gulley and Greenlaw add some backing vocals here and there, but the harmonies are weak, infrequent and poorly recorded.
I like lo-fi stuff as much as the next hipster, but here the muddy miking and mumbling become frustrating. Too many lyrics are needlessly obscured, and opportunities to enhance some fine melodies are wasted, particularly on slower numbers like the heart-aching “Thunderbird.” Including lyrics in the liner notes would help, but the harmonies just need more work.
These shortcomings aside, Piñata is a promising album, a solid starting point from which this young band can further refine and expand its sound. The Toughcats’ live shows are generating a buzz, and they’re embarking on a fairly aggressive touring schedule this year. Here’s hoping 2007 brings them more well-deserved recognition and an even sharper sophomore release.
— Chris Busby
The Toughcats play Thurs., March 1, at Chicky’s Fine Diner, 3 Bridge St., Westbrook, at 8 p.m. Free (all ages). 854-9555. (Note: A previously scheduled Feb. 2 gig at Goat’s Head Soup has been cancelled due to the club’s recent closure.) For more info, visit toughcats.com.