It’s quite some time (probably a couple of years) since I attempted to review a new album. At the time, I’m sure I would have mentioned something about not being an expert in music critique—and this blog must come with the same caveat.
At the moment, two bands are dominating my daily treks up and down the A19: Epic Problem and Sugar Stems. The former is the last band I went to see; top blokes and a distinctive sound that deserves to be heard... very loud... especially at 5:30am in the middle of a built-up area!!
But today’s blog is about Sugar Stems, and their third studio album Only Come Out at Night, which is due for release next week. Sadly, my chances of seeing this band live are fairly remote, as they hail from Milwaukee in Wisconsin (yep... like The Fonz). They start their west coast tour today, but unfortunately their definition of “west coast” incorporates Washington, Oregon and California, whereas mine would have included Blackpool or, closer still, Whitehaven.
Anyway, the band comprises Betsy Heibler (guitars and lead vocals), Drew Fredrichsen (guitars and vocals), Steph Swinney-Conard (bass) and Jon Heibler on drums—four very talented musicians and, just in case you’re wondering, Jon and Betsy are husband and wife.
In the normal course of events, I probably would never have come across Sugar Stems, but their name appeared during a Spotify related artist (of related artist etc) search. I clicked to listen to a couple of tracks from their album Can’t Wait—and I was hooked.
One thing that really annoys me about music as a whole is the constant need to pigeonhole a band into a certain genre, using more and more ridiculous labels. One of my all-time favourite tracks is My Empty Head by The Flatmates, an excellent “indie” band from the 80s, whose success certainly did not match their ability. Anyway, I once read a review that described this particular song as “proto-grunge”.
What the hell is “proto-grunge”? Can music really be classified as a prototype of a genre that, in theory, didn’t even exist (at least by name) at the time. Ah the benefit of hindsight...
So I’m going to neatly sidestep words like “power-pop” and, worse still, “bubblegum”, and tell you that Sugar Stems play a brand of music that is catchy, uplifting and, occasionally, genuinely moving. Betsy has a distinctive, clear voice (slight similarities to Beth Cosentino from Best Coast—if I was going to compare... which I’m not), and the male/female harmonies with Drew provide some of this new album’s high points.
I’m not sure if the streamed song order matches the album; if it does then Baby Teeth is an excellent opener. The title track and songs like (the brilliant) The One, and Tell the Truth epitomise what is great about Sugar Stems, but the album also includes the rock ‘n’ roll influenced Haunted, which gives Drew three minutes in charge of the microphone.
However the big surprise comes right at the end, with the ballad Million Miles. There is some backing, but this is essentially Betsy’s voice and an acoustic guitar, and the result is simply stunning. The first time I heard the song, I just stopped what I was doing and stared ahead, until I felt a tear trickling down my face. I wouldn’t presume to guess what influenced Million Miles, but impact is arguably more about how a song connects with, and affects the listener, and if you can create that kind of emotion with a voice and a guitar, then you’re pretty special.
If you think I’m going to succumb to the age old cliché of awarding a mark out of ten... then you’d be absolutely right. Sugar Stems know the formula for producing feelgood tunes; this record proves that several times over, but there are also some departures from the tried and trusted. Whether or not they all work is something you can decide by following the link and having a listen, but in amongst the toe-tapping riffs and hooks (The One being my favourite) is an absolute gem in Million Miles. Have a listen and let me know what you think.
Only Come Out at Night - 8½/10