Toft’s 31 showed up at Sing Out!’s offices in a sandwich bag. Physically speaking, it’s a white CDR with “31” written in Sharpie and “Maxel Toft” written in hard-to-see (white-on-white) liquid paper. Also included was a portrait of Herbert Hoover with a track listing on the back.
A visit to Mr. Toft’s website doesn’t do much to clear things up. There’s a picture of a young man with a banjo, hiding in an attic cubbyhole with a reel-to-reel tape machine. Apparently he’s been releasing records on his own, one for each president, since 1999 and going back from 42 (Clinton). The President Series is alternatively titled the Reverse Pregnancy Series, with each album also representing (in addition to a presidency) one week of a pregnancy (with 42/Clinton representing an overdue baby. It’s clear that this project should be taken with a sense of humor.)
Herbert Hoover is mostly remembered for, well, the Depression. Hoover flags, Hoovervilles, Hoover Dam. In Week 31 of a pregnancy, a mother may be getting short of breath, while her baby approaches three pounds and 18 inches and may be sucking his or her thumb.
31 doesn’t appear to deal with any of those topics, but it is still a topical record in a sort of classic folk way. Toft’s songs are mostly about the things that are on his mind, and clearly 21st century electronic commerce is a major concern to him. In “Change” he has the “electric credit or debit blues,” stemming from the difficulty of busking for change when most people rely on electronic payment; “Delivery” seems to be a critique of the near-instant gratification afforded by online shopping; you can guess what’s bothering him in “Secret Question;” and in “Ringtone” he not only identifies situations where you don’t want to “feel a little buzz,” but then performs, repeatedly, an elaborate nonsense rhyme representing a ringtone. In between he takes detours for potholes, the danger of shaking babies, and the mysterious “What’s for dinner?” in which the narrator warns one Cholly against both burning the audience and calling the cops. The strong album opener “Lazarus of Bethany,” is a new gospel-folk interpretation of the old story and the only one of the songs that doesn’t tie into a topical theme.
The record is primarily Toft accompanying himself on banjo in a rough two-finger style; there is some guitar accompaniment as well and backup vocals on two tracks. His voice is husky, warm and full and with an obvious sense of humor pervading his delivery. Overall, the record probably qualifies as outsider music; despite its many qualities that tie it to the folk canon, Toft himself admits via his site that his music is “really just amusing myself and wasting time.” In keeping with that, it’s tough to shake the vague sense that there’s a common theme, and tougher to shake the sense that that theme is just beyond the listener’s grasp. There are jokes in there, but it’s not clear whether we’re supposed to get them, or be amused by our own not getting them.
Or perhaps that is looking into the matter too deeply. The album’s most clearly lucid moment is “Riffles and Currents,” the sweeping and surprising closer, which melds a lyrical but simple banjo lead to kit drums and bass accompaniment with minimal electric guitar accents. It feels a lot like American Primitive guitar, transposed to banjo, then placed into a Chicago post-rock setting circa 1998. Toft may sum up his theory with his reading that closes the track:
We’re in the same boat, brother and sister
but we aren’t necessarily rowing in the same direction.
I’ll come paddle on your side and you come paddle on my side
every little once and a while.
We aren’t getting anywhere but we can still have a good time talking about
going nowhere and dreaming about going somewhere.
— Dan Greenwood