Electrified pop rejuvenates North Haven trio the Toughcats

“Woodenball,” the new album from the North Haven trio the Toughcats, almost didn’t get made. At least, Colin Gulley, Jake Greenlaw and Joe Nelson didn’t have any immediate plans to record a new album. The way they put it: it just kind of happened.

“All we had were a bunch of new songs that we were kicking around,” said Greenlaw, drummer. “We weren’t planning on doing any recording. We ended up just setting up and playing at Waterman’s Community Center [in North Haven] and recording what we were doing, and we were blown away by what happened. And that’s pretty much the album we have.”

“Woodenball” is still very much a Toughcats album – gently melodic, but with a deft, hyperactive percussive edge and groovy, interlocking guitar and banjo parts. But where previous albums “Pinata” and “Run to the Mill” could easily have been shelved under bluegrass (or, more specifically, progressive bluegrass), “Woodenball” comes straight out of the gate wearing its pop heart on its sleeve, and its instruments plugged in and turned up.

“We started listening to a lot more different music,” said Gulley, who plays a modified, electrified hollow body banjo now, as opposed to a traditional acoustic one. “We listened to band like the Feelies, Fleetwood Mac. That kind of thing. We’ve always loved pop music and pop songs, and I think this was a really easy, natural progression for us.”

The harmonies on songs like “Big Big Hole” and BLANK are full of harmonies that wouldn’t feel out of place on a classic alt-country album – think the Jayhawks, or “Summerteeth”-era Wilco. The energetic, upbeat vibe that’s captured on it is due in part to the pop hooks scattered throughout all ten songs, and in part to the fact that most of the album was recorded live, oftentimes in just one take. It’s a new vibe for the Toughcats, for sure, and one that the trio is relishing, as they embark on tourdates to support the new disc. They’ll perform at the Oak and the Ax in Biddeford on Sept. 20, and two shows on Sept. 22 the Common Ground Fair in Unity at 12:30 p.m., and at the Rockport Opera House at 7:30 p.m., with the 220s.

“We’ve been together for eight years, and it’s really nice to have this new album and be able to experiment a bit,” said Gulley. “We’re getting the chance to evolve. It’s a fresh approach to the music we’ve been making all the time. We’ve got a new burst of energy.”

In addition to the new album and the electrified edge, Greenlaw, Gulley and Nelson have been up to plenty other things. Last fall, they were on the bill for a benefit for victims of Hurricane Irene in Vermont, a concert that raised $20,000. They opened for indie band Deerhoof in Boston. Gulley and Nelson wrote and recorded the score for the movie “Betting the Farm,” directed by fellow North Haven residents Cecily Pingree and Jason Mann. And, as Greenlaw points out, Marshall Wharf Brewery in Belfast – who have hosted the Toughcats at Three Tides countless times – named a beer after them.

“We had a beer named after us, the Toughcats IPA. That was pretty neat,” said Greenlaw. “That’s something I’m particularly proud of.”

“Woodenball” is available exclusively at all Bull Moose Music stores statewide. A digital release will be delayed until October, so Toughcats fans can support local music stores.

Emily Burnham

About Emily Burnham

Emily Burnham is a Maine native, a UMaine graduate, a proud Bangorian and an arts and lifestyle writer for the Bangor Daily News, where she's worked since 2004. She reports on everything from local bands to local food, from media and the Internet to theater and dance. In her quest for stories, she's seen countless concerts and plays, been lobster fishing, interviewed celebrities, hung out with water buffalo and played in a ukulele orchestra, to name just a few. She's interested in everything -- especially if it happens in Maine. She welcomes any and all feedback or suggestions for stories.