Monday, March 17, 2014

album review: 'bring up the sun' by sundy best

It's been almost six months since I made my Special Comment surrounding the evolving climate in country music, and where I made a plea to mainstream critics, on YouTube and otherwise, that country music should be afforded more coverage.

And for the most part, this has happened to some extent. Rolling Stone, The AV Club, and even Pitchfork have broadened their horizons slightly and have covered more country music - typically when it brushes either the pop or alternative spectra, but it's better than nothing. And yet at this current time, I'm still the only guy reviewing country music on YouTube, and honestly, I don't get it. Sure, it's a format that tends to cater to an older audience that might not be as web-savvy, and sure, it might have limited cultural force outside of the US, and sure, the people my age who are listening to country now probably haven't gotten all that invested in the genre - but still, it's a little jarring and a little lonely to see all the coverage that hip-hop, indie rock, pop, or even metal gets, and seemingly just me covering country. 

But then again, if it's just me talking, I've got a certain obligation to deliver not just quality reviews, but information and news about country acts of which you probably haven't heard - most of which I discover thanks to tips and accidents. I get annoyed with the lack of country music's web presence in comparison with other genres frequently, but the biggest contributing factor is that there isn't an aggregate. The coverage of alternative or indie country is so thin in comparison with other genres that it can be a real challenge to track down new acts, especially if they don't get mainstream radio airplay, and with the increased conglomeration of radio stations beneath single banners, a lot of local scenes end up getting lost in the shuffle.

This takes us to Sundy Best, a Kentucky-based act I would never have known existed if it wasn't for a tip in one of the comments. Primarily an acoustic country duo that called back to the days of singer-songwriters, they released their first album Door Without A Screen in 2012 that turned out surprisingly strong, with a lot of folk-inspired exuberance fused with fast-picked banjo and pretty clever songwriting. I won't say the album is without its flaws - the production has a strange lack of homegrown grit and texture that was a little perplexing, and I didn't think all of the lyrics were stellar - but they had a a melodic focus and a ton of energy, so I was interested in their sophomore album Bring Up The Sun, which came out a few weeks ago. How did it turn out?

Well, it's great. In fact, I'm pleased to report I can add Sundy Best to Jason Eady, Lydia Loveless, and Eric Paslay in the list of great country musicians I've been introduced to this year, and their new album Bring Up The Sun is definitely a very solid improvement over their debut. And while it does have its flaws, it brings a unique sound to the country scene that I really found creative and a lot of fun, and one I'll definitely recommend.

So how did they pull this off? Well, let's start with the instrumentation and production, where the most notable changes have occurred. The first thing you'll notice, for instance, is that there are no drums on this album - at all. Instead, Sundy Best opts to go with a cajon entirely for percussion purposes, and the shocking thing is how well it works. And the shocking thing is that the songs don't feel top-heavy in the mix, mostly because Sundy Best was forced to get creative when it came to adding some presence and power to their mix, and they did it by bringing in rougher electric guitars to sizzle and surge at the back. And better still, these guitars also contribute to the harmony lines of the song driven by the acoustic instrumentation, which are much stronger and better syncopated than their previous record. In fact, if we're going to look for the unsung hero of this album, it'd be in the production, which brings in a fair amount of earthy grit and balance, to say nothing of power. As much as I liked the bluegrass and folk elements to Door Without A Screen, the production always felt claustrophobic, and while this album is much closer to country and 70s roots rock - especially with the addition of the organ, which wins points for me right out of the gate - it's a much more natural fit for the band and the production belies that.

So let's move to the vocals, where again we have some improvements. Nick Jamerson's vocal delivery has always been exuberant, but here we actually get a little more maturity and weight to his delivery, which is a tempering factor that was desperately needed. I still feel his emotional delivery can be a little broad for my tastes - his heartfelt vocals do make up for a lot, but he's not exactly a subtle singer - but a lot of that comes with time and he still steps up to the microphone with a lot of raw intensity that you can't fake.

This takes us to the lyrics and themes, and this is where Sundy Best surprised me the most - not only because the technical songwriting measurably improved, but that the band diversified their subject matter in a pretty satisfying way. 'Smoking Gun', for instance, is a song about admitting you've screwed up in the past and accepting the blame, but also that you shouldn't only judge someone based on their history, and their present actions are relevant too. 'These Days' is a song about feeling lonely when the majority of your friends get into relationships and you don't, and as much as you walk your own path, you can still end up getting hurt. And 'Mean Old Woman' is a straight murder ballad that brought to my mind images of Dostoyevsky's Crime And Punishment, and while this story takes a very different arc, it's just as lurid, bloody, and uncompromisingly awesome as that story was.

And yet, this album goes deeper than that, thematically exploring a very real dichotomy in the human psyche - the desire to mature and settle down and find that true expression of love, and the instinct to run wild and have fun, holding it together however you can. And while Jason Eady's Daylight & Dark went pitch-black in its exploration of all the benefits and costs of walking on the darker side, Sundy Best opts to keep things lighter and more lovestruck. 'Until I Met You', 'Lotta Love', 'Wild One', and 'Thunder' are all songs that cheer for the more mature side of the argument, and while 'Beautiful Mess' and 'Swarpin' do make a pretty compelling case for haphazard living, they do feel a little undercut and not as well framed. And I'd be remiss not to mention the worst song on the album 'NOYA', which seems to be Sundy Best's attempt to jump on the bro-country bandwagon, and while the song is self-aware, the tone is a little too sour and the lyrics are a little too leering to really save it. And on that note, while I can't say 'I Wanna Go Home' or 'Lily' are bad songs by any stretch, I do question the reasoning to include either of them on this record, even though they do have new arrangements from their placement on the debut. But in the end, you get the impression that Sundy Best are opting for the 'settling down' option - which makes the final song 'Painted Blue' such an emotional gutpunch that feels earned: how he worked so hard to figure out his issues and change and grow and mature, and then he got left behind by the girl for which he did it all because of his sordid history. And as he regresses in the song back to the cigarettes and whiskey and harder living, there's a subtle realization that if he wants to change, he'll have to do it for himself, not for someone else, and it'll definitely be a struggle.

In the end, Bring Up The Sun is a great, unconventional, impressively bold country album that calls back to the past and yet still innovates enough to sound unique today. I'll admit that there are plenty of songs that just struck a unique chord with me, but that doesn't make this record any less well-written, melodically driven, or emotionally powerful. It's an 8/10 and a high recommendation from me. And if I'm the only guy on YouTube talking about and criticizing country music... well, I might as well find some damn great albums for the trouble and make sure you know about them too.

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