Toy City’s self-titled debut features seven originals written by Paul Burke and Steve Shaheen along with two surprising covers. The covers bookend the album revealing the conscious intent behind the track listing and the remaining seven tracks hold up well in comparison. There’s an obvious aesthetic driving the creation of this album. Its very existence is an outgrowth of the COVID-19 lockdowns, as so many new releases in the last year, but the duo does a remarkable job masking the fact. These songs sound as if they are cut live in the studio and that spontaneous off the cuff feel is a big selling point for the release. It helps smooth over any rough edges, and there are some, resulting from the sometimes intensely personal nature of the material.
There are other strengths as well. Shaheen and Burke opted to include two covers on the release and their choices are less than obvious. The first of these covers, album opener “Do Re Mi”, mines the classic musical The Sound of Music for material. It isn’t a slavish interpretation of that classic musical theatre number, far from it, though they hold onto the basic makeup of the song. Everything centers on vocals and guitar during the debut’s nine songs. “Do Re Mi” may deliver a bit of a jolt for those familiar with the song in its traditional incarnation, but you can’t help but applaud the tandem for treating this venerable number as a guitar propelled alt-rocker rather than chaining themselves to a purist point of view.
“Dinosaur”, the album’s second track, is our first indication of the songwriting talents they bring to the table. It’s a pained reflection on the cost of getting older distinguished by excellent compositionally minded guitar work. Neither man is trying to prove their chops; they’re focused on serving the song. Burke handles many of the instrumental duties on this release and this song alone proves he’s more than a capable guitarist. Anthony Vinciguerra’s excellent drumming gives “Dinosaur” a fluid yet solid foundation.
The piano present during “Mountains” gives it added melodic flair. Many listeners, however, will experience a near magnetic pull towards this song because of how solid the bass and drums work together. They create a fat dependable pulse Burke and Shaheen build around. No one will confuse the vocals with Pavarotti, but the emotive yet slightly dazed quality of the singing suits the material. “Glue-All” rates as the album’s most audacious moment. It’s a careening and raucous guitar track over which the vocals do nothing but sing from the back of an Elmer’s glue bottle. It may seem as you read this that it’s a silly bit of self-indulgence, but it works on multiple levels. It’s funny and yet also a glorious musical middle finger to anyone demanding profundity from songwriting at all times.
The finale is an unlikely cover of John Lennon’s legendary “Imagine”. Toy City, however, forego the standard reverential treatment in favor of a stormier tone. The guitar squalls and the arrangement peaks at the right times while the vocals hold down the center. It’s a statement of hope in the middle of a tornado. Concluding the album with its second cover gives a sense of unity to the release it might otherwise lack. It brings down the curtain with passion on an unexpected, but welcome, gem.