New Music: Friday Roll Out! With Damian Jurado, Sugar Candy Mountain, Belly

We’re falling behind here. As a country, there are too many states where it seems education is seen as just another privilege. The equality amongst those who truly need one falls far below what they receive. Arizona, Colorado, and other states have moved like the Doobie Brothers and taken it to the street! Politicians use their tactics and educators in some instances seem clueless in the ability to negotiate. In every instance, if in doubt, get it in writing. But it’s another Friday and while many live for the weekend, school is back in session and school funding remains where it is in some places: at zero. We can be cynical or move forward. Eh, it’s a slippery slope we all share.

Now, this week I’ve immersed myself in a number of different situations and encountered many things that I’ve been unable to classify. Sugar Candy Mountain is a band. A band that created an array of sound that in itself, remains unclassifiable as having one singular sound. It’s difficult to believe the new Do Right (PIAPTK Records) is the band’s fourth long player, and the first I’ve discovered. Many, I’m sure, would be hard-pressed to take the band’s own bio as its definitive sound which lingers with comparisons to Brian Wilson/Os Mutantes/Flaming Lips and the like. While all those might fit well together in the psychedelic musical stew, it leaves out so much more. The band seemingly time travels through varying decades, unifying sounds, and blending them together for that Sugar Candy Mountain concoction. The opening “Split In Two,” driven by an unabating keyboard underneath a steady rhythm that’s bass heavy, is a pop gem in its absolute vigilance, drawing from a stylization that’s decades old but remaining as contemporary and in the now. You’ll understand the psychedelic pop moves the band takes on “This Time Around,” as harmonies abound through the orchestrated track filled with an assortment of string instruments.

It seems the band is pretty comfortable moving at a mid-tempo pace with many of the songs filling space with percussion at varying speeds. I find myself addicted to “Crystalline” which utters in ruminations of shoegazing without the wall of guitars or indecipherable vocals. “Happening” urges with 70s pop sensibilities for the 21st century, wandering through English towns, guitars in hand, drums following on a flatbed truck with a wondrous choral backup. The imagery is captivating on the sound in itself. And then “Quiet Place,” lazily finds the band stateside, playing instruments to their heart’s content, allowing words to roll off tongues and following instruments as they urge with unrelenting beauty. The band is in full assault mode with airy tracks like “Tidal Wave” that releases a sweet aroma of sound or hypnotizes on “Losing Myself” with odd notes surrounded by delicious melodies.  I’m not sure if there’s anything Sugar Candy Mountain can’t do. It’s as if the Carpenters were swallowed whole by handfuls of acid, with the keen ability to hold it all together on Do Right. Of course, comparisons are cheap but at that price, it’s well worth it. You’ll fall in love with this band just as I have.

I’m always afraid to play a new Damien Jurado album, not because I don’t enjoy his music but because I don’t want to show any sign of disappointment. It’s hard to believe his 20+ years as a working musician has led to this very point. I’ve followed his career since early on, my first discovery was actually his second album, which I confess remains one of my favorite pieces of work to date. So yeah, he has a new album entitled The Horizon Just Laughed (Secretly Canadian) and the sound does differ from what I’ve come to expect. “Is that a good thing though?” is what I’m questioning to myself. One thing that has changed this go-around is Jurado has completed a first, in producing the album himself, which accounts for that initial change in sound. Creeping around guitar-driven folk songs is one thing Jurado has always done perfectly, and while he hasn’t eschewed the techniques that have gotten him this far, he seems to be expanding on everything he’s been doing since 2016’s Visions Of Us On The Land. The album’s opener, “Allocate” has taken string arrangements to an entirely new level for Jurado. While he remains the folk artist I’ve always come to love, the soul he meticulously blends within it is endearing. The track itself has soft edges around it, and it allows imaginations to run wild throughout it. Here he’s penned a song that anyone could easily hear Al Green’s voice over it. That in itself is no easy task. The rhythm drives listeners through hazed fogs where they have no worry as to what direction they’re taken into. But he then leads listeners through a much more familiar territory albeit differentiating at the same time, from what we know. “Dear Thomas Wolfe” drops more piano under his strummed acoustic guitar work, adding in strings for good measure. All the while, he’s using writer Thomas Wolfe as subject matter. But it’s the way his compelling singing combined with the song structure makes the track so compelling. Jurado is back! And it only took me two tracks to let go.

Jurado continues with his storytelling “Percy Faith,” an upbeat keyboard/guitar-driven number that brings him back to his early work, although here’s where the strings come in again, although more impactful.  He follows through at this point with “Over Rainbows And Rainer,” and I’ve just come to think there’s no way he’s ever going to shake the ghost of Nick Drake, an obvious influence on him. This stark and lonely number doesn’t need much in its softness of guitars and vocals, but it’s surprising when midway through, horns and strings fill out the open space before returning to its rightful place. He delivers more of that strumming with his sole guitar and vocals on the minute-long “Cindy Lee,” but then seems to move into a bit of Tropicalia territory on “Marvin Kaplan.” Given, This isn’t a take moving into “Girl From Ipanema” direction but it’s adding a semblance when it opens. “Random Fearless” changes up the momentum of the album as Jurado cleverly plays with dynamics. For lack of a better phrase, this is a lot. The quiet rattling of The Horizon Just Laughed has much encapsulated within it, varying from soulful to folksy. As subtle as it may be, Damien Jurado is challenging himself, literally pushing the envelope to see where he can take music. He’s the better for it, as are we.

There’s hardly anything that surprises me anymore but Belly releasing a new album?  Yeah, that did. I guess it should have come as no surprise that Tanya Donnelly has resurrected the band she helmed after ejecting herself from the triple-guitar threat of the Breeders, who also released a new album, but where does Dove, the new album, fit the world in 2018? This is the band’s third album and fans of the group may surely devour the straightforward melodies pieced together from track to track but it’s not a creative beast of an album people may expect. Or even thought of expecting. Or wish they would have expected. Ok, no one ever expected Tanya Donnelly to release any material as Belly I’m sure. There’s nothing particularly bad on this 12-track collection of songs, in fact, the songs are well pieced together. But it was done already. Two decades ago. Not that there’s anything wrong with that but Tanya Donnelly & co. aren’t mining any new territory with the new Dove. While the tracks are well written and produced, the songs remain interchangeable. Belly’s third album falls short of delivering an evolved musicality.