The Emerald City
Since forming in Chicago two decades ago, South Side sextet the Tossers have released eight albums of boisterous punk jigs and sodden sadness, building a solid cult following somewhat short of their better known peers. They’ve not received the prominent movie placements, nor have they penned a paean adopted by a World Series-winning baseball team. While they’ve got everything Dropkick Murphys and Flogging Molly can boast—from loud, driving guitars to foot-stomping fiddles—they don't always sound particularly distinctive. The melodies just haven’t been as memorable as something like “Devil’s Dance Floor.” While frontman Tony Duggin’s thick brogue-ish growl is perfect for the Tossers' material, his range is somewhat limited. They’ve written their share of brilliant songs—the provocative political ire of “The Ballad of N.A.T.O.” off 2001’s Long Dim Road, breakneck shout-along “Whiskey Makes Me Crazy,” the earnest resilience of “Last Rites Of The Plummeting Thermometer”—the Tossers' albums have tended to run together. With The Emerald City, they find a better balance of pace and reflection, balladry and inebriated headlong rush. (They’ve also brought back the banjo, absent on 2008’s On a Fine Spring Evening.)
It’s pretty meat and potatoes, subject-wise, but Duggins has penned his share of political broadsides and he’s at his best with women and alcohol. It’s nicely sequenced and has an arc of sorts, going from the reeling album-opening ode to gypsy-ways, “The Rover,” through the very pretty, love-besotted “St. Patrick’s Day” (with its hard-won acknowledgement “Grace will come even when you think it’s flown”) to the exultant final toast, “Sláinte.” It’s not a departure from what the Tossers typically do, but it feels like their most complete and fully realized release, and the culmination of greater concision beginning with Agony. There’s plenty to herald from sharp Celtic-folk instruments (“The Fermoy Lassies And Sporting Paddy”) to the sharply upbeat party-ode “Where The Beer And Whiskey Flow” and the tin whistle reflection of the title track.
The best two tracks helm the first half, one after the other. The first is the hearty F.U. of “Wherever You Go,” a thought completed with “may you suffer your whole life through.” It lilts like a raised mug of brew, then takes off in the final third as the band kicks it up and Duggins imagines life as a drunken escapade: “You stumble out in darkness trembling all over, you fell down on the roadside in the water and the clover… The vermin are swarming all around in the clover.” It’s followed by the proud immigrant’s song, “USA,” which turns the old Springsteen anthem on its head in declaring, “We weren’t born in the U.S.A.” It begins with cool rolling tympani before building a sharp fiddle-driven charge. Duggins notes how he and his friends would sneak away from “Irish parents’ eyes, in the dark with loves and friends… smoking weed and drinking brews, loyalty was what you knew,” connecting those tight-knit relations to his heritage, community and our country as a whole.
The Tossers aren’t as consistently intriguing sonically/structurally as Flogging Molly or as balls-out as Dropkick Murphys, but have virtues of both. Their confident manner and strong musicianship belie their 20 years of grinding and they reward anyone who loves Irish-inflected rock with an album that hangs together nicely and moves briskly enough to readily entice you into hitting “repeat.”