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  • Jonathan Widran

TOY CITY, Toy City

The pandemic downtime gave birth to a plethora of amazing and wildly unexpected projects that couldn’t have happened without Covid shutting down the music and other creative industries. Now, three years on, at least in the indie rock world, the energized emergence of freshly reunited, early 90s, grungy throwback duo Toy City tops the coolness list.

A few decades after Paul Burke and Steve Shaheen became friends in the Pixies-era Boston alt-rock scene of the mid-90s, Burke had become a filmmaker and Shaheen a sculptor living on separate coasts. When their individual worlds shut down, they found themselves back in the songwriting groove, collaborating remotely from San Francisco and Brooklyn to create a very strange, super-dark and oddly atonal, yet thematically, lyrically and sonically fascinating album under the name Toy City.

Though not an official part of the band, Brooklyn based multi-instrumentalist and sound engineer John Russell worked his ass off mixing and producing with Shaheen, whose offbeat bass and midi tracks are the foundation of the surreal atmospheres beyond the sizzling energy and dystopian flow.

The tracks book-ending the economical (28 minute) 9 track set are worth the price of aural admission alone. Especially considering that it was recorded during a bleak time, we might expect creatives who came of musical age in the 90s to put a haunting, fuzzy, musically gloomy spin on the aspirational lyrics of John Lennon’s “Imagine.”

Yet opening with a fuzzy, hypnotic rumble through the normally cheery “Do-Re-Mi” (the normally chipper instructional tune from “The Sound of Music” - is probably the most infectiously oddball way ever to start an album. But as we think about this as what might have happened if Maria had gotten wasted before taking the Von Trapp children out for an educational frolic, we should be aware that one of the duo’s mother was a former Catholic nun, making this tune, like most of the seven originals on the set, offbeat reflections of childhood and family.

The most prominent and heartrending examples of this are the propulsive through psychedelic haze and gloom filled “Glue All” – a “sung” reading of the instructions on an Elmer’s Glue bottle that reflect an attempt to glue back together shards of a traumatic childhood – and “Margherita Regina,” a fascinating and soulful, lyrically sparse narrative tied to the difficulties of getting information tied to family ancestry.

Other noteworthy points of entry are the trippy, rumbling “Bicycle Thief” – comprised solely of film titles from the Italian neorealist period (1943-50) – and the boomer friendly “Dinosaur,” a fairly straightforward rocker, uploaded with many personal references, that speaks universally to questioning the feeling of irrelevance as we age. The latter is surely the only song in existence to mention both MTV’s Real World and Rara, the festive music native to Haiti.


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