Bluegrass Unlimited - The Toy Hearts - Femme FataleTHE TOY HEARTS
Woodville Music

There’s always been a kind of underground country/city connection between bluegrass and swing music, with many skilled players and singers enjoying at least a passing acquaintance with both styles. It makes sense if you think about it; both require technical virtuosity, a firm grasp of the stylistic idiom, and both forms have a rabid core of fans, both purist and eclectic.

A band that calls itself The Toy Hearts is bound to be associated with bluegrass, as per the classic Bill Monroe song, and this unusual trio definitely has an appreciation for the form. Lead singer/mandolinist Hannah Johnson, guitarist/harmony singer Sophia Johnson, and banjoist/resonator guitarist Stewart Johnson bring in some fine reinforcements in bassist Missy Raines, fiddler Ross Holmes, and mandolinist Jesse Cobb.

Properly, most of their CD plays to their strengths in swing and blues. But, when they try to play bluegrass straight, something doesn’t quite work right. Some of it is the vocal phrasing, with the densely packed lyrics (that might work for an uptempo swing tune) sounding awkward in a bluegrass context. The guitar breaks are flashy, but sometimes just a bit too rough at breakneck tempos, and somehow the frequent G-runs aren’t enough to make it sound authentic. When the tempos slow down a bit, as on the pretty waltz “Tear Stained Letter” (not to be confused with the Richard Thompson song) or the sweet, admittedly folksier song “The Captain,” it’s easier to appreciate the band’s strengths, both vocally and instrumentally. And they are undoubtedly a fine swing band, especially as displayed on the sultry album closer, “She Got There First.”

The Toy Hearts deserve credit for trying to pay homage to two great stylistic forms. But Femme Fatale serves as a reminder that going back and forth between them is not the easiest thing in the world for anyone. ( HK