There’s something to be said for music that’s been assembled in a slapdash manner. After all, most of this country’s oldest genres have always kept spontaneity and improvisation at the core of their mission. Indeed, much of the blunt emotional force and raw air to be found in blues, jazz, and country would be lost if blueprints had been drawn up first. Several groups in operation today – Phish, My Morning Jacket, and Pearl Jam among them – continue to employ this aesthetic in performance, where every concert takes a different trajectory from the one that preceded it. In most cases though, the basic song structures came about through weeks or months of intense songwriting; only then are the tunes given the space to roam and assume a different identity.
So what happens when all this ad-libbing takes place at the starting line instead of the finish? Enter Toy Soldiers, a collective that hails from the City of Brotherly Love and writes their rootsy jams with a write-it-and-record-it M.O. With such a large rotating cast of players (anywhere from 5 to 10 musicians), it’s truly a marvel that founding member and principal Soldier Ron Gallo keeps the 11 tracks of Whisper Down the Lane sounding so focused and confident, even as those familiar themes of love and loss threaten to creep in and turn everything topsy-turvy.
Lucky for Gallo that his supporting mates have as much faith in their technical abilities as he does in his hasty approach to penning tunes; nothing on Whisper is ever less than entertaining, and in a few special moments, Toy Soldiers goes well above and beyond that of what is expected from such a young band.
True to their principals, opening cut “Throw Me Down” came about haphazardly, the result of a chance melody first realized by Gallo during a bike ride after work with erstwhile band mate Mike Baurer. Though the song manages to be both playful and indignant with its searing guitar riffs, marching sound effects, and lyrics that suggest a tough-as-nails attitude (“Throw me down in the river / throw me down in the road / if by then I don’t surrender / then hell / throw me down a little more”), the title has a double meaning that makes reference to throwing down recordings as quickly as possible. The bluesy jam is also just one of many that features the formidable vocal talents of Kate Foust, about whom Gallo wrote the heartfelt confessional, “Beside You in Mind.” Surrounded by more frenzied songs about bad luck and failed relationships, this unabashed love song rings true with its gentle acoustic guitar strums and twangy lap steel melodies.
Often though, the band is at its best when it indulges in blues-minded whimsy; imagine if The Dead Weather wasn’t so stubbornly serious and unrelenting all the time, and you’d be headed in the right direction. “Hard Times” could indicate that a pity party is about to commence; yet the rockabilly groove – a walking bass line and rollicking drumbeat – keeps the gloom at bay. “Loaded on Sunday” is just downright comical, a mix of saxophone and trumpet melodies that almost places the song within 3rd wave ska territory. Against an “oh la la” backdrop from the ladies in the group, vocalist Daniel King dismisses his significant other with great one liners like, “Oh what a funny honey you can be” and “You’re lonely / well at least you got me.”
It is only on “The Turnaround” that a little darkness persists. The lyrical imagery gets richer in the process (“Infested by thirsty leaves / dry and cracked / out of mind / three legged horse drawn driftwood carriages”) as the nimble chops of trumpeter Greg Rosen provide the track with a palpable Tex-Mex flavor that Calexico would surely favor. Gallo’s vocals are the most impassioned and soulful we’ve heard yet, particularly as he yelps, “Take a quick look back / and it’s not always pleasant what you see / but it’s usually not so bad if it’s what set you free.”
Either Americana-flavored music is enjoying a big time resurgence in popularity this year, or I’ve just had good luck with the promos being sent my way as of late. Along with Kingsley Flood and Rusty Borealis, Toy Soldiers are bringing fresh ideas to a genre that often sounds antiquated. Catch them on their East Coast tour through September.