The Toughcats "Run To The Mill" (Royal Tar Records, 2010)
Roger, Wilco and Out
If Iíd never have heard Dylan's soundtrack to 'Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid' I would have no reference point to fall back on. Maybe that's a good thing, maybe not as it's hardly renowned in the Dylan canon as being a masterful set of creativity. But that would be missing the point.
Interspersed between some quite excellent American roots are some bluegrass spaghetti western jigs and reels straight from the score. I wanted to describe this as a game of two halves because the instrumental tracks are not as engaging at first listen, but rather than detract or subtract they are simple counterpoints to their lyrical cousins. The problem with them is that apart from showcasing the dexterity of their digits - the tunes aren't memorable enough to follow you.
There's a loose, vibrant, unrestrained quality to these songs. Almost as if in the studio they decided something might be a good idea so gave it a try - it doesn't always pan out perfectly but it sounds pretty damn good to these ears. 'Honky Town' sets the standard - a shuffle board rhythm against banjo and the definite sound of resonance guitar. Do not be put off by the minimal drum sound. It will either irritate or be a source of solace. Itís not until I listen to 'Fool' for the hundredth time that my brain ticked over and I matched the thought with the feeling. If Wilco went yocal folkal they would sound like the Toughcats, vocal genuflection and everything is already there. 'Everytime' is a bit of minstrelsy with a ragtime twist (the kind of thing Michelle Shocked did with aplomb in making 'Captain Swing') and 'Dinah' follows suit.
Of the instrumentals, 'Blue Goose' is great fun - cracking banjo runs and guitars flex and fight with each other in a bit of banter. 'Joshua Chamberlain' however is a song that needs a story - itís as though they wrote it and then just forgot to put the vocal track on top. 'Mill Song' is an exercise in riffing. No more, no less.
Being the biggest contradiction in verbal reasoning, 'Happy Day' is actually a beautifully crafted warm pint of melancholy. Bitter, and shows a depth hitherto hidden beneath the jolly exterior. Then with a sound one can only describe as a cat being strangled (no animals were harmed in the writing of this review) we begin ploughing the wild western furrow again. Songs such as 'In the Middle' show a delicately nuanced songwriter(s) at work with an uncanny knack of mixing the rough with the smooth with delicate ease. 'Harlet Marie' is an all to brief demonstration of the smooth post-midnight western two step with a delicious minor key close.
None of this is deceptively original in any way. But there's no substitute for simplicity and songs that make you feel good, relaxed and at one with the world. If we ever get the return of summer, this is a record to enjoy it with.
Date review added: Friday, July 23, 2010
Reviewer: Andy Williams
Related web link: The Toughcats on the web