Let’s get it out of the way up front. The Emerald City, the new record by the Tossers, delivers the same mix of punk energy, Celtic instrumentation, and booze-soaked lyrics that has been the band’s stock in trade for 20 years. The band travels down a well-worn path here — musical surprises are few.
But here’s the thing: In this case familiar does NOT mean boring or tired. In fact, it’s remarkable how much life the band can squeeze out of the Celtic-punk formula. The Emerald City might not break any new ground, but it is a vibrant album, full of warmth and emotion. I’ll drink to that.
For the uninitiated, the Tossers are Chicago’s main representative in the ongoing Celtic-punk mini-movement whose other key members are Dropkick Murphys from Boston and Flogging Molly from Los Angeles. The Tossers predate those rivals — the band formed in 1993 —but haven’t quite been able to reach the same heights of success. Still, over the course of seven full-length albums, they’ve managed to build a devoted following that spreads far beyond their beloved South Side.
The new album finds the band sitting square in its wheelhouse. Opening track “The Rover” is a lusty ode to the ramblin’, drinkin’ lifestyle, with the traditional sounds of mandolin and violin riding a punk beat. The pleasures (and occasionally, the perils) of drinking come up again in songs like “Here’s To A Drink With You” and “Where the Beer and Whiskey Flow”. All are fun, if typical, barstool anthems, complete with glass-raising lyrics growled by singer Tony Duggins in his affectionately contrived brogue.
The tracks that really stand out, though, are those that deal with those two key rock ’n’ roll emotions — love and hate. “Where You Go” starts as a gentle tribute to loved ones, accompanied by piano and the sweet croon of a violin. Then drums kick in like a punch to the jaw, and the song becomes a venomous middle finger to enemies and scoundrels everywhere: “May you lose the eyes from your miserable face / And spend all your days here in scorn and disgrace”.
Then there’s the title track, which salutes the city of Chicago and the true love the narrator found within it. Duggins delivers his best vocal performance here, singing with genuine feeling about the bond between parent and child: “Then you were born, born here to me / And you mean everything to me / And no matter what I’ll always be / With you in the Emerald City”.
Musically, the Tossers lean more heavily on the Celtic side of the Celtic-punk equation on The Emerald City. Mandolin, violin and tin whistle are the key instruments, with the doses of punk coming from the rhythm section. Everyone does a fine job, but the album’s secret weapon is violinist Rebecca Brooke M. Her playing lights up the songs on this album, giving them heat and power they might not have otherwise.
All in all, this is a solid effort, full of songs as bracing as a pint of Guinness, and a few that will give your heart a squeeze. Longtime fans of the Tossers — or any Celtic-punk band, really — won’t find anything on The Emerald City that they haven’t heard before. But sometimes familiarity can be a good thing in rock ’n’ roll. It makes listening to an album feel a bit like sitting at your favorite table inside your favorite pub, preparing for a drink with old friends.