Post-Punk meets Brit Pop for alternative excellence on Sugarmen’s debut release.
Words: Kyle Smith
Sugarmen is a band to watch, I’m calling it here. There’s a cliched saying in the entertainment world that goes something like: “it takes many years of hard work to become an overnight success.” It’s a tired saying, but it definitely a true one. Sugarmen’s Local Freaks may be a debut album, but there are many years of hard work that went into this release, and this work is primarily evidenced in the wide variety of influences from which the band pulls their writing inspiration.
They sound like a well-listened band, drawing ideas from numerous popular and underground musical traditions throughout the entire album. Fellow music history geeks like myself will be delighted to hear twinges of post-punk, new wave, brit-pop, garage, psychedelic rock, surf rock, and more mashed up together sometimes in a single song. While this vast array of influences can be sometimes dizzying to the listener, and there are times that I personally would like the album to be more cohesive song to song (more on that later), no one will deny that Sugarmen has a vast creative reservoir, and this bodes well for the band’s future – like I said, they’re a band to watch.
The album opens on “AC” a post-punk dancer with groove and vocals that I find reminiscent of Preoccupations’ Viet Cong album. A floating guitar melody ties the song together throughout, with the band building at the end, increasing the tempo to get the listener ready for what’s in store. “Sold” follows, and it’s a straight-up Beatles vocal melody with a punky rhythm section underneath and lead guitar lines going crazy, all deliciously beautiful sonic things that work well together. Next is “Our Gallows,” which is a groove-driven mid-tempo tune that sounds like it’s transported from a Talking Heads album. Excellent. Once again the floating guitar melody is present throughout – starting to tie some of the songs together with the now familiar tone.
Following is “Push Button Age” which was the lead single for this album and I think that was a good choice, because this is my favorite song. It’s a good mix of the post punk ethereal vibe with the foundation of Brit pop melodic sensibilities holding the song together. Next is “Golden One” – starting like another Talking Heads tribute, but then it breaks down into a groovy halftime section that can only be described as sexy. I think this is one of the hidden gems on the album because it takes these seemingly disparate influences and transposed them into something completely different. “Thunder in the Foothills” is next and this one is more upbeat and aggressive, punky even, reminiscent of bands like Husker Du, but once again the Brit pop melodies are a driving force.
“Save the Feeling” is up next, and it could probably be considered the album’s ballad, but only if we’re using that term lightly. It’s still got some edge, but it’s probably best described as a rocky psychedelic groove-out in pop song form. Definitely a quality mid-tempo rock ballad. Following is the title cut “Local Freaks,” which brings in dancey elements reminiscent of The Clash’s “Guns of Brixton.” It’s short sweet, to the point, and enjoyable.
“Kool Aid” is next and it opens on a bright catchy guitar melody that interplays nicely with the vocal harmonies. Underneath all of this the rhythm section is going nuts with a groove that will make you want to move. “Time” and “Central Line” follow and both of these tracks remind me of a mix of R.E.M. and Husker Du with Brit Pop. They are probably the songs that draw most obviously from American alt traditions. “Rabbit Hole” is the second to last track and it’s another hidden gem. It’s a garage dancer that will definitely get people moving. The groove makes me think of “Echoes” by The Rapture albeit a bit more chill. The album finishes with “This is My Life.” I feel as though it’s an appropriate final track because it’s another that tacks all of these loose influential elements and ties them together in something new.
After listening through these tracks again and again and reading through my own descriptions of them again and again, I’m struck with the feeling of “Wow, that’s a lot to take in.” And it absolutely is. This brings up my one main complaint about the album.
All of these songs are great. I love the musical traditions Sugarmen is pulling from and I think they have creative ideas of how to transform those traditions into something new and original. However, it seems too much at once. There are times where the album feels scatter brained, jumping from exploring one musical influence to the next. There didn’t seem to be much tying the tracks together into an album other than some of the guitar and vocal tones and the fact that these tracks are performed by this group. This leaves the listener a little dizzy because there isn’t some sort of sonic narrative taking them through the release in a way to let each song have it’s full impact, it’s simply a collection of songs by this band at this particular time.
Now, that doesn’t mean I disliked the songs, or even the album as a whole. Honestly, I think all the songs on the album are excellent by themselves, I simply do not think a full album like this was the best way to release them. With how the music industry has changed over the past two decades, there are no more set molds of what a release should look like. Because of this, I am of the opinion that if you’re going to release an album, release an *album*. Make sure there’s something tying them together, sonically, thematically, narratively, something, otherwise it’s the songs that suffer because the listener has no frame of reference for how to interpret what they are hearing to it’s fullness. I think that’s the case here, all the songs are wonderful, but they run together and fight for the listener’s attention all at once. I feel as though this would be a stronger release as two or three smaller EPs. Same songs, different packaging, grouping them together in a way that guides the listener towards appreciating each song for its own right would create a more cohesive and therefore more enjoyable experience.
That being said, Local Freaks is quite solid for a debut release. Despite my comments about this release needing to cohesive, I feel as though Sugarmen is a band going places. Heck, it sometimes takes bands three to four releases to come up with the type and level of ideas they’re presenting on their first album. I look forward to hearing more from them and seeing how they mature and grow as a band. There’s hints of how they ‘re working on tying it together in songs like “Golden One,” and “This is My Life,” but it’s not quite a fully formed idea yet. It will be fun to watch and listen to them form that idea and see where they go with it. Keep up the good work guys.