The Tundra Toes, In It To Win It, 2009
By Bryan Cipolla
The Tundra Toes have been a staple, better yet, a jagged piece of rusting metal lodged within the local Ithaca music scene for the past year. Upon their recent extraction from the town, due to the inevitable graduation of several of their members, a unique scar was left unlike any other. This was a mark that the Tundra Toes were happy to remedy with their debut album, In It To Win It, released independently this past summer.
In order to fully understand the Tundra Toes particular concoction of chaotic, bluesy folk rock music, one must be aware of what their live shows are like. They are the driving force behind the band. Onstage, plates were smashed, boards were cut, electric drills spun and saws bent and played; all orchestrated to create an intimate yet anarchic experience. Sawdust, shards of porcelain, and blood could be found strewn across the stage after their sets were completed—remnants of a frenzied folk dance party.
It would be no surprise to see members of the band, who adorned the NBA jerseys of their favorite players from the ‘90s, “crowd surfing with a megaphone while people screamed the choruses to [their] songs,” as CJ Knowles describes. CJ, an Ithaca College graduate of 2008 and former Buzzsaw editor, is the main songwriter and creator of the group, along with five other former and current IC students.
In It To Win It attempts to capture the spirit of these live shows while incorporating further instrumentation and orchestration. The album’s ghostly opening track, “Never Hard,” is led by a steady beat accompanied by haunting, muted vocals. The howling of a saw is heard in the background, adding to the song’s eerie tone.
The album continues in this vain of strange folk but becomes much more chaotic and polarized in one of the album’s standout tracks, “Local Meat.” The track embodies the band’s goal for the project—creating music that is “insane but composed,” says Knowles. A strumming guitar is accompanied by high pitched, wiry tones as the rough vocals of a madman blurts out sloppy yet organized sounds. Strings build up until they are cut off by the sound of grizzly laughter, and the chaos collapses with the tones that the track began with.
“Coal Mines” blends a bluesy guitar riff with breaking plates and brass instruments, then brings in a breakdown reminiscent of a demented carnival spinning out of control. “St. James Infirmary,” the album’s only cover, takes on an old school blues song, incorporating a unique exchange between a saxophone and a harmonica. The album takes a more melodic turn with “Sober Moon” and “Fish Hooks.”
A variety of imagery is evoked throughout In It to Win It, including pirates, cemeteries, bars, heartbreak, mortality and insanity. The album also incorporates Christian imagery, yet not in a laudable sense, including the lyrics, “I threw fish hooks at the mountain tops to search for a higher power/ But you don’t fish for God when you are kneeling like a coward.”
The album concludes with “The Admiral,” a six-minute track that can be described as the only “pretty” song on the album, including strings, female vocals, echoing, and tapping guitars. Its tonal contrast to the other tracks makes it an obvious and appropriate closer.
“Our ‘goodbye’ show [my] senior year at Castaway’s included two piñatas, one filled with Army men and mini marshmallows and the other filled with potpourri and paprika,” Knowles says. “We also had two jugglers, Nick Carr in a bear suit and all the makings of Hell’s birthday jamboree.”
Currently, the band is spread out along the East Coast and has not played together since this last show. Two of the band’s members, Reece Lazarus and Steve Burton, currently attend Ithaca College and are part of another up-and-coming Ithaca-based group, Caution Children.
Despite all of this, CJ is still writing songs for the project, and the band plans on playing again this coming year. In It To Win It can be downloaded for free at thetundratoes.com.