Reviewed by contributor Kyle Smith
Bagpipes, punk drums, fist pumps, mandolins, gang vocals, and kilts – it is a difficult task to fix something that was never broken in the first place. Flatfoot 56, like many bands in the Celtic punk niche subgenre, creates music that is made of all that is non-pretentious. Flatfoot’s recently released Toil is no exception. As a general rule, music snobs need to tread lightly in the punk world, and this rule is compounded when bagpipes – please, just try to be pretentious while playing bagpipes – and men in plaid, legless garments are factored into the equation. Therefore, I would suggest those prone to musical snobbery either stop reading right here before becoming frustrated or set aside pretension for an hour and allow yourself to have some fun – for fun is truly the essence of Flatfoot’s fourth studio album.
The album’s opening track “Brother, Brother” begins with a bagpipe drone and launches into an explosive “Oi!” powered punk anthem that fits right in with Flatfoot’s repertoire. What follows is an enjoyable expedition through the lands of punk, folk, and – dare I say this in the same sentence as the word “enjoyable” – bluegrass. Flatfoot knows what they do best, and they stick with it throughout the album, and they provide an entertaining collection of songs that deal out a great number of fist pumps and foot stomps.
One of things I appreciate about Flatfoot is that throughout their discography they take the themes of working-class “Oi! rock” and put a slightly different spin on the material by incorporating themes of honoring ancestors who have worked in and lived through horrible conditions so that we may enjoy what we have today (See “Courage” from Black Thorn  and the title track from Jungle of the Midwest Sea ). This album emphasizes the struggles of daily laborers and factory workers of the American Midwest during the Gilded Age and Great Depression. This is truly evidenced by the moustache on the album art – I mean, seriously, look at that thing and fully appreciate its turn-of-the-century awesomeness! Musically, this theme is mostly observed in the title track, and the songs “Work for Them,” and “Live or Die Trying”. The rest of the album is comprised of more standard – but by no means generic – Celtic punk and folksy ballads.
Flatfoot’s ballads have matured throughout their discography, and the band has begun to use these more extensively. On this album, the band incorporates some bluegrass feel – banjo included (see “6 10”)– and ventures into foot-stomping renditions of hymns (“I’ll Fly Away”) and quasi-spirituals (“I Believe”). What results is an album that is some weird mix of a punk rock show, a gilded-age bar scene, and a southern revival meeting; however, it somehow works extraordinarily well for them. The song, “Winter in Chicago” most clearly exhibits this eclectic crossing of genre and generational boundaries.
The song opens up with a rousing saloon type piano riff – putting the listener clearly in an old bar context. Guitars, drums, and mandolin soon augment the piano, and once the vocals come in, listeners can easily picture themselves walking into their favorite pub in the middle of a bitter Chicago winter after a hard day of work in the early twentieth century. Curiously, the lyrical themes do not mention turn-of-the-century content, but rather modern-day experiences of Chicago – such as being stuck on Lake Shore Drive and watching the Blackhawks play hockey. This interesting mix of instrumentation and thematic content – especially when placed in the context of the album as a whole – provides an excellent example of how Flatfoot’s music can connect the joys and struggles of the present generation with the joys and struggles of the generations before us.
Overall, this album is an enjoyable combination of musical variety, historical awareness, complex thematic elements, and the pure simple joy of punk rock. So grab your fedora or bowler hat, strap on your suspenders, and lace up your work boots. Pop in a copy of Toil and be transported into a world of goofy fun and Gilded Age/Depression Era nostalgia. After a few listen-throughs, you will feel like you were present during that period of history, and by the time you get to that point, you will want to listen through the album all over again.