Moments like this is when I sometimes need a refresher course. Sugar Candy Mountain is a familiar duo out of the west coast that I was particularly fond of back in 2018 when they released the full-length Do Right, which I lazily compared it to sometimes sounding like The Carpenters seen through acid-laced eyes. Three years later the band reappears with a new release in hand, which I received a few days ago. Its latest opus, Impressions, does leave those indentations on my skull with 60s-era breathiness, swirls of keyboards, and drum patterns & beats that are hypnotic. The opening “Running From Fire” utilizes a heavier bassline here, which will undoubtedly hook listeners in on the first listen. The few guitar notes driving the rhythm, accentuate number and yes, I’m completely in. The billowing backdrop of the title track is alluring as it spirals upwards towards the heavens. It’s wondrous. But it’s “In A Flash,” that draws attention as the effects leave listeners wondering where the music is headed, and in a flash, the melody is captivating, and the psychedelic flow allows the music to take on a life of its own. Well, Sugar Candy Mountain knows what it’s doing, and always does it well.
There are some bands and musicians that people always tend to follow, and I’m no different from anyone else when it comes to that. Some may deliver an album that doesn’t hold up to its discography but that’s ok, they have the opportunity for redemption in the future because their history has already been defined. Then there are those that are consistent, always offering up song after song, album after album, of what we want. It happens.
Today marks the twelfth solo release by Lou Barlow, depending on who you ask, but if you count the Sentridoh releases, it’s twelve. Originally utilized as an outlet to record music after his departure from Dinosaur Jr., the project morphed into another form but Barlow has continued recording material of his own. It’s been six years since Barlow has released material under his own name but he’s always remained active, either with Sebadoh, Dinosaur, or recordings of his own. Reason To Live (Joyful Noise Recordings) is the new one and is what we’ve all come to expect of Barlow; acoustic guitars, keyboards, semblances of his lo-fi days, all wrapped well within catchy folk-like quality songs. Barlow digs in with the hiss of the opening “In My Arms,” which makes us believe he’s recording through a Tascam 4-track before the static clears leaving guitars, bass, & drums frolicking around a clever melody as electric guitars wash in and out. But it’s the title track that quickly reels listeners in, focused on this sturdiness of the melodic notes he strums, striking with immediacy and definition as his words are closely weaved together within the music itself and when his echo-effected voice tugs at heartstrings when he sings, “…before we’ve got nothing to give/through my heart, through my hunger/talk about a reason to live.” There’s a deep, rich quality to the song that makes it easy to fall in love with.
The insanity in his song structuring comes with “Love Intervene” though. The song, intimate in nature, builds with a cathartic-like reprieve, as keyboards and lightly strummed guitars, along with faint harmonies, give listeners the impression an explosion will eventually arrive but never does. Does it matter? Nope. The song is gorgeously composed as is. I’d love to end everything right there because it couldn’t possibly get any better than that, but I persevere through the seventeen(!) tracks on the album. “Clouded Age” has a certain charm to it where Barlow plucks those notes delicately at times, singing, harmonizing, as drummer John Moloney follows along here. Note: this is the only moment someone other than Barlow himself plays an instrument. But one thing he’s known all along is he doesn’t always require an assortment of instruments, which is obvious on “How Do I Know,” where in just a minute and a half he sings and plays his guitar with just a little background noise provided, churning out an alluring melody. One thing we could always expect from Lou Barlow is a commanding performance. Through the first half of “Lows And Highs,” he sings with the power and effort of Johnny Cash, while never losing his own identity here through his heavy-handed strumming here and effortless vocal harmony. The song in fact, shows Barlow as two sides of the same coin.
Reason to Live has quality and distinctive sound that’s unable to be duplicated. Barlow’s voice is unique, as is his songwriter, and has proven himself time and time again with his guitar alone. There aren’t many that are able to do that and we all know that Lou Barlow is still one of the best songwriters around.
Oh, the precociousness of others. We come to the realization sometimes that fortune smiles upon some of us while others aren’t so lucky. Some artists don’t rely on gimmicky or shticks, instead, choosing to rely on a steady influx of raw talent and creativity. Goes to show why John Dwyer, Ryan Sawyer, Peter Kerlin, Tom Dolas, Brad Caulins, Kyp Malone, Marcos Rodriguez, Ben Bye, Joce Soubiran, Laena Myers-Ionita, & Andres Renteria (which is the OH Sees + Kyp Malone of TV On The Radio) opt for releasing music under their names as a collective instead of choosing a moniker to make things easier on all. Oh, the precociousness.
It’s obvious this group of artists has a completely different take on music. Last year’s Bent Arcana took its freeform, utilizing 70’s fusion, free jazz experimentation, and an assortment of other things, creating an unrelenting hodgepodge of clear-cut sounds. This year, the group aims to do the same with Moon Drenched (Castle Face Records) with over 40 minutes of music that invigorate the senses, leaving musical tastebuds oversaturated with so much hot sauce we’d all be running for the nearest trough to dunk our heads in.
There are a number of creative outbursts throughout the album which it is in fact drenched in and I’m left scratching my head wondering if these were one-shot deliveries and if the band could in fact repeat the output here. “Psychic Liberation” revolves around guitar and percussion interplay, utilizing a variety of effects, and keyboards throughout. The track drifts until its end but it’s never cumbersome, always hitting notes and keys that are enticing. The lengthy “The War Clock” is something altogether different. The song’s percussion and drums lead the way as instruments build around, heading towards funk-induced headspace but never landing there. The psychedelia doesn’t allow it but choppy guitars attempt to alleviate the pressure, landing in no man’s land. Horns, horns, and more horns fill the air and it all becomes a free-for-all with a singular vision in mind as all the members become as one.
There’s room around for everyone to contribute. A percussive pound here, horns insulated around guitars there, a bass groove controlling everything all around, it all makes sense without making sense on “Der Todesfall.” But then the directness of “Spoofing” takes hold as the group moves in one direction, allowing space for individuals to do their own thing. It’s both inspiring and haunting at the same time.
One thing about John Dwyer, Ryan Sawyer, Peter Kerlin, Tom Dolas, Brad Caulins, Kyp Malone & Marcos Rodriguez, Ben Bye, Joce Soubiran, Laena Myers-Ionita, & Andres Renteria is their ability to adapt, shift, and challenge. That’s exactly what the band accomplishes on Moon Drenched, an album rife with new ideas.