I’m frequently surprised by the genre categories that appear when I load a new disc into my computer’s library. Tokyo Rosenthal’s new album comes up as country and western and I suppose I’d reckoned him to be more of a folk singer than anything. His subject matter covers a lot of ground, from the personal and observational to some barn-storming social commentary, but I can’t think of a song of his that sounds “pure country” – and certainly not on this, his fifth album, despite the presence of some great pedal steel playing from Allyn Love and some good ol’ country fiddle from John Teer.
Rather, Tokyo’s a man who writes about the things that make him curious or that affect him deeply and then, together with producer Chris Stamey, pulls together a sound for each song that might embrace folk, rock, country or whatever seems to fit. In a sense, the musical style doesn’t matter too much because Toke’s voice is so distinctive, with its ever-present nasal catch, that his presence pretty much dominates the arrangement. So, from the sweet and tender Tex-Mex sounds of The Immigrant, to the curiously hybrid sound of Smoke and Mirrors (that sounds like a reggae rhythm to me, allied to Spanish guitar and a silky smooth sophisticated rock outro; somehow, it all works together well) Tokyo’s voice is the peg from which it all hangs. I confess I blow hot and cold on his voice. Sometimes it seems the ideal instrument to deliver a particular song because he can express tender anguish particularly well. Sometimes, though, I feel I’d like to hear his songs sung in a contrasting voice that would bring out different qualities.
He chucks in one cover version on this album, The Beatles’ Helter Skelter. I guess I’ve never liked this song, I’m afraid, and even John Teer’s appropriately febrile fiddle playing doesn’t rescue it for me here. Besides, Tokyo writes some really good songs himself. I don’t always get his drift, but when he hits the mark he can write a song that will stick with you. I like the elegy he has written here for an Irish fiddler he must have known, Killaloe. He paints a picture in words that captures the warmth and magic of Irish music making, and there’s a similar warm humanity to The Immigrant. The stand-out song, though, is probably What Did I Used To Be?, another look at the protracted economic misery visited on ordinary folks in the current times. He’s written about this before, and this new song has a bit of a driving rock kick alongside some epic, soaring pedal steel. He’s expressing the continued confusion ordinary working Joes feel at a world seemingly re-modelled overnight, and that big tune acts as a soothing balm for all those caught up in their own stories.
Toke’s been building a following on these shores in the last few years and he’ll be back in the late spring to present these new songs. He’s a fine, individual writer and well worth checking out if you haven’t already caught up with his work.