reviewed by Michael Thomas
Sometimes musicians don’t have to go into recording an album with a grand theme in mind. In the case of New Brunswick’s Tomato/Tomato—John and Lisa McLaggan—it seems like their main focus was to make some damn good bluegrass music. To do so, they gathered a bunch of Maritime bluegrass players, and the result is a fun, dynamic album of barn-burners and countrified ballads.
The McLaggans are the central part of Tomato/Tomato, trading off lead vocals or just singing together, and they’re at their best as a team. Their chemistry is infectious, making songs like lead single “Ain’t Dead Yet” bubble with charm. It’s a familiar premise for a song—make the most of your time on Earth, etc—but there’s a real warmth in the vocals and the fluid banjo and fiddle that backs up the song. “I Go Where You Go” is just about as sweet as they can be, a ballad that never gets too syrupy and comes across as more playful than anything.
Tomato/Tomato also has quite the ear for composition; most of the songs on this album have the rare quality of sticking in the mind after just one or two listens. “Lemon Pie” is an upbeat and simple ode that may make you hungry, while the wistful cowboy lament of “I Never Knew Her Name” gets big notes from the woman who “don’t come around here no more.”
The ratio of foot-stompers to calmer numbers is a bit skewed in favour of the latter, but the songs that aren’t flying by in a blaze of banjos highlight quirky songwriting. Faint strumming punctuates “Steal Ya,” sung by Lisa McLaggan, giving the song a sneaky atmosphere as she sings about trying to steal away a man. Precise percussion makes the search for “Peg Leg Joe” that much more fun.
Things get a little quieter toward the end of the record. “The Best We’ll Ever Know” is a gentle folk song about some compassionate people named Al and Ida, and “Back to Eden” could be a bedtime lullaby. “Everything You Need” is a bit of an energy surge with an empowering message, but album closer “Rabbit in the Log” is a furiously fast stomper that sends things out on a high note.
You can’t exactly replicate or easily sum up Tomato/Tomato’s chemistry, so it’s best to enjoy it for what it is: fun, quirky bluegrass. What more can you ask for?
Top Tracks: “Ain’t Dead Yet”; “The Best We’ll Ever Know”
Rating: Strong Hoot (Good)