Toy Soldiers’ debut full length, Whisper Down the Lane, begins promisingly enough. “Throw Me Down” sounds like some kind of swamp chant-cum-work song that swiftly bursts into guitar-and drums thrash, with howled vocals by Ron Gallo and Kate Foust lifting above the cataclysm like a couple of wounded hound dogs. Sure, it’s a little White Stripes-ish, but with enough other stuff going on that the comparison isn’t as odious as it might be. When the song shifts into lower (and slower) gear, the exciting possibility arises that this might be one of those bands whose unpredictability, even within a song, is matched both by its songwriting chops and its musicianship. In other words, “Throw Me Down” sets the bar pretty high.
After this rollicking start, the record melts into a kind of samey-sounding formlessness. “Hard Times” ups the tempo but discards any interesting musical hooks along the way, and it doesn’t help that Gallo’s squalling voice, which worked so well in the context of the first song, has transformed with astonishing swiftness into something shrieky and unpleasant. “Fingernails on a chalkboard” would be unduly harsh, but I could understand why someone might describe it so.
“Love Ya Like I Love Ya” and “The Wretch” just slide by without making much impression. Keeping tempos upbeat, the band settles into a tinny-sounding blues-rock that is neither terribly bluesy nor convincingly rocking. Everyone’s trying desperately hard to channel a good-timey vibe, with lots of incidental sounds in the background; whoops and handclaps suggest a spontaneous gathering that has somehow erupted into song. But the result comes off as forced, and with the sonic pallette limited to trebly guitars, thin voices, and a rhythm section that lacks muscle, the songs tend to bleed into each other.
Even the attempts at variation—horns in “The Wretch”, Foust’s sweet-voiced vocals on “Be Right Here”, the honky-tonk piano on “When I Tripped Into You”—fail to differentiate the tunes much. The good news is that if you like any of these songs, you’ll probably like most of them. That said, it’s tough to see anyone too enamored of “Beside You in Mind”, which sounds way too much like that guy in your dorm who used to strum Leonard Cohen songs at two in the morning on the night before exams.
The album picks up some momentum toward the end. “The Turnaround” could be the theme song to an unmade western, with its imagery of three-legged horses and meaty, twanging guitar. “Myself: Repeated” throws everything into the mix, and somehow the stew of white-boy soul, bubbling organ, brass punctuation, and snaky guitar alchemizes into something that genuinely rocks. Neither of these songs is up to the standard of the album opener, but they do hint, frustratingly, that this band has more to offer than the neo-hippie party vibe that it spends so much of its time pursuing.
Alas, the neo-hippie party vibe is what we get. Maybe next time around, the more interesting sounds will come to the fore. Until that day, however, Toy Soldiers remains a band hampered by its worst tendencies.