It's a couple of years since Toke Rosenthal's last album and these ten new songs lift off from the standout track on 2009's Ghosts. That standout track was Mister, Tell Me 'Bout The Great Depression, a song which drove along rather splendidly. The briskness and focus which gave that particular song such life shows up immediately on the new album and demonstrates what a powerful thing it can be for a singer to find a context - the band and the production - that really suits him. Toke's voice is distinctive and unusual, with a catch in it that seems to belong to another style - one I can't put my finger on, to be honest, but whatever it may be, he doesn't sound like a rock or country singer. However, in Bobby Britt's vigourous fiddle playing, Toke has found a great counterpoint to his vocal style and this has only been enhanced for the new album by the addition of Allyn Love's sympathetic pedal steel playing and the light, joyful style of Charlie Chamberlain on mandolin and banjo. In short, before the first song is half over, you get the happy feeling that all the elements of this music are fitting together just perfectly.
Toke follows the path of the singer-songwriter with the social conscience, so his albums are full of tales with empathy for characters who have their struggles. Sometimes he writes in the first person though I'm not sure we should necessarily take those songs as autobiographical; he comes up with some good downbeat lines that Hank Williams would have happily used: "There's nothin' I can't do in life - 'cept get a fresh start" is one, and "Maybe I've been where I'm goin'" is another. That's a mid-life crisis line, if ever I heard one. Some of his songs take a little thinking about before you get to the heart of them; if you're not privy to the events that inspired the song, then you have to join the dots a bit. However, more than ever on this new album, the music will carry you through whilst you're figuring it all out. The most direct song here, Black To Blue, talks about the devastation of the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico last year, an event which I guess should stain the conscience of all of us oil junkies. Complicated world, ain't it?
There's some really good music on Who Was That Man - a dash of Mexican horns on The Librarian and some Jerry Lee Lewis flavoured country on San Antone being amongst the highlights. The man himself reaches the warmer depths of his singing register on some songs and overall the feel of a real band in full flow is really nice to hear. Toke will be back in the UK before too long and it'd be great if at least some of his band were over with him; with this album already riding high in the Euroamericana chart, I'm sure he'll be getting a warm welcome, whatever.
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