Tough Old Bird are a folk duo from Fillmore, New York State, comprising brothers Nathan and Matthew Corrigan. With two EPs and two previous albums of more traditional American folk music under their belts, ‘The Old Great Lakes’ is an attempt to expand their sound beyond their original confines.
The opening track ‘Second Street Waltz’ has an acoustic folk-rock base layer, supplemented with trumpet to give it a New Orleans summery jazz feel. Later, in ‘Swallows Song’ they provide a synthesised lo-fi offering – all dreamy soundscapes and mysterious lyrics. The contrast couldn’t be starker. Elsewhere, ‘Seven Lights’ nods to the duo’s origins: folk harmonies over a banjo backing. Between these diverse offerings, there are some real high points. ‘A Little More Time’ is a reflective breaking-up song nicely introduced by a weather forecast clip predicting stormy times ahead. ‘When it’s Over’ provides the album highlight. The brothers Corrigan really let go with a cracking song that rocks along, perfectly complemented by some excellent harmonica playing. It sounds far more natural, more relaxed and more authentic than anything else on the album.
Some of the gentler, slower songs, particularly ‘Second Street Waltz (Pt. 2)’, do highlight some weaknesses in the vocals. The brothers are able sometimes to overcome that flaw with some inspired lyrics. ‘Lake Erie Come Home’, an R.E.M. style literate rock song, contains some wonderful imagery: “Power lines are swinging like gallows, every blackbird’s a king”. Similarly, title track ‘The Old Great Lakes’ offers “the buildings are so tall, each one lit up like a bottle full of stars”.
It’s always a bold move to attempt to walk away from what you are known for and to develop a fresh musical landscape. ‘The Old Great Lakes’ is Tough Old Bird mixing their pallet, trying out different brush strokes and attempting to paint a different picture. The result is good in parts. Moreover, they perhaps try a bit too hard to be different. There are too many directions being travelled, too much variation and consequently it sounds more like a collection of tracks, rather than a coherent whole. Nevertheless, the album offers an insight into the fact that the Corrigan brothers have more to offer than simple traditional folk music.