The Toughcats – Run to the Mill (Toughcats, 2010)
This trio lists their home turf as the Fox Islands, a collection of small land masses off the coast of Maine, 20 miles from Portland across Casco Bay. But their warm acoustic music – harmonies, guitar, bass, banjo and drums – is bred more from the hills and hollows of the mid-Atlantic and South than the open waters of the Northeast. Dan Bolles, of Vermont’s Seven Days, has described the Toughcats as Maine’s answer to the Avett Brothers, and that’s an apt comparison. Their harmony singing has a similar sort of yesteryear charm, but they’re neither a bluegrass group nor a contemporary acoustic combo. There are pop and progressive-folk sensibilities in their melodies, and the presence of drums gives the backings some polite rock ‘n’ roll punch.
Run to the Mill, the group’s second album, features eleven originals and a cover of the Tin Pan Alley “Dinah.” The latter is rendered with a feeling for the Eddie Cantor’s ragtime flair, and a bit of hot club jazz in the strings. The original songs include sunny sounds that recall the Lovin’ Spoonful’s old-timey charms, vocal harmonies that reach to pre-Bluegrass brother acts, and folk songs, like “Happy Day,” that suggest, initially at least, Ray Davies’ quieter moments. Colin Gulley’s banjo provides both melody and percussion, adding a lengthy coda to “Happy Day,” floating to the top of “Sunshine” and breaking into a friendly solo for the instrumental “Bluegoose.”
There’s are progressive changes running through the instrumental “Joshua Chamberlain” and pop tones to “In the Middle” and “Harlet Marie,” but the modernisms are grounded in rustic roots. The Toughcats aren’t throw-backs, but neither are they a hipster’s modern riff on nostalgia. Like anyone who inches an art form forward, they’ve brought elements of the past into their own times, realizing the magic of earlier harmonies and stringed instruments in songs acknowledge the past but blossom in the present.
Check out one of the Toughcats’ elaborately staged entrances: