Tuesday, December 2, 2014

album review: 'salvation city' by sundy best

In early March of this year, I reviewed the sophomore release of the Kentucky country duo Sundy Best, and to say I liked it might be a bit of an understatement. In short, the record had a ton of energy, great melodic hooks, and a newfound lyrical maturity that grounded the record and has helped to make it one of my favourite country records of the year thus far. I loved the use of cajon for percussion, I loved the snarled guitars and organ, and I really dug how deeply Sundy Best were able to push their minimalist sound into something organic and powerful.

Well, apparently the rest of the world paid attention, because Sundy Best started gaining traction, the biggest features coming courtesy of Rolling Stone's new country division. People started paying attention to this duo beyond alternative country fans and critics, and really, it couldn't be a better time. After all, considering Dan + Shay never really caught fire and the Swon Brothers have struggled to gain maintain relevance after The Voice, we could definitely use a good country duo to give Florida Georgia Line some competition.

But I have to be honest, I was worried about this release. I said back when I reviewed Rick Ross' Hood Billionaire that I get an uneasy feeling when artists feel the need to drop two albums of original material in the same year, especially when the first release was as good as Bring Up The Sun was. Sundy Best had set a high bar for themselves, and considering they were moving away from the cajon to a full drum kit again, I was concerned that they might lose some of their original sound in favour of maintaining their hype or possibly making a mainstream breakthrough. That said, with every release Sundy Best had gotten better, and Bring Up The Sun was a damn strong record - did they match it?

Well... no. And believe me, as a fan of these guys, I hate to say that, because I get that Salvation City is trying to do a very different thing than Bring Up The Sun - that album was rougher, angrier, had a lot more exposed edges, where Salvation City is a bigger, broader experience that's more lightweight, not as dramatic, made for kicking back and having fun. And yet - and believe me, I don't want to say it - but it's not as good. Now let me stress it is still a good record, but Sundy Best has it within them to make great records, and even though there is some more of the genre-pushing elements that I liked about their previous record, it just doesn't land as well.

So let's ask the question why, and the place we need to start is the instrumentation and production. Now I was concerned with the replacement of the cajon with a drum kit, and while I do miss it for the propulsive, riotous energy that it brought to the table, the drums work pretty damn well for what this record is doing instead. It's a lighter, breezier sound, and to Sundy Best's credit, they do manage to squeeze a fair amount of instrumental flourishes and change-ups in, especially in the choice of guitar tones. I liked the interweaving acoustic and clipped electric tone on 'Shotgun Lady', the solid melodic hook on 'Distance', the heavy fuzz on 'Fishin' that reminded me of a Drive-By Truckers song, and the rollicking chug on 'Do You Wanna Go'. Hell, even though I didn't like 'My Sweet Thing', the bluesy guitar tones fluttering across the mix were enough to save it. And that's not touching on the organ flourishes and some pretty solid strings production all across this record - in other words, the perfect recipe to country music, at least for me.

And thus it's such a damn shame the production doesn't really carry the weight. I don't if it was rushed or if this was intentional, but it's a little shocking how much warmth and personality was lost with this production, particularly in some of the vocals. And it's mostly little things - the vocals feeling a little far back or the multi-tracking feeling a little shaky, but then we get songs like 'Distance', where the very obvious pitch correction on the backing vocals feel completely out of place. And it comes up again on 'My Sweet Thing', which seems like Sundy Best's follow-up to 'NOYA' in making a bro-country-flavoured song and it's easily the most stiff and clumsy song on the entire album. And there are other plays it feels a little off too - I respect the intentions behind 'I Want You To Know (World Famous Love Song)', with the great prominent guitar lick and spacious organs and incredibly lightweight strings, trying to create more of that psychedelic country vibe, especially with the vocal effects, but it feels instead like Sturgill Simpson-lite and lacks some of the texture to really land for me. 

And now we come to the songwriting - and look, I get that Sundy Best were aiming to do something very different with this album, something more lightweight and fun. And it definitely helps matters that they are good songwriters with a self-deprecating sense of humour that can work for them, especially on songs like 'Piece Of Work'. Their honest framing has always been one of their greatest assets, and their complete sincerity makes songs like 'Southern Boy', the pretty damn good love song 'Four Door' that reworked Deana Carter's 'Strawberry Wine' melody into something pretty damn good, and my favourite 'Get Back Home To You' work pretty well. Hell, when they choose to write songs with more of a story you get 'Distance', a song about retrying a relationship when they rushed things the first time and now taking it slow and giving each partner their space, which is a pretty good sentiment. And hell, these guys are at some of the best with Springsteen-esque exuberance on tracks like 'Do You Wanna Go'.

But the more I listened through Salvation City, the more I realized why it wasn't clicking - there really wasn't any real dramatic stakes to this record. You're not getting tracks like 'These Days' or 'Lily' or 'Painted Blue' or 'Mean Old Woman' here, those quieter moments that could have grounded this record. Now granted, Bring Up The Sun was a more serious release, but it had its lightweight moments on songs like 'Swarpin' - but we don't even really get many songs like that either. The rough edges on Sundy Best might crop up in some of the songwriting, but maybe it's a factor of the tempo or lack of the cajon or real explosive presence in their riffs, but there isn't that balance on Salvation City between darkness and light, and even in staying consistently light, there isn't the same energy or wild side. It's telling that one of the most rough, snarled, fast-paced songs on this record is 'Fishin', which is about as sedentary as you can get. 

And here's the thing - I'm not even surprised by this change, because this was in principle the very same thing Jason Eady did in 2012 with AM Country Heaven - a smoother, more mainstream accessible listen that caught a little traction but not quite enough, which then prompted him to make one of the best records of his career with Daylight & Dark. I'm expecting a similar progression with Sundy Best and Salvation City, which believe it or not is still a good album, just not their best. The production feels a little rushed and could have afforded to be a little rougher and darker, but it's still a solid release that'll probably win over that mainstream audience and it's enough for me to give it a solid 7/10. Not their best record, but still solid quality and I'm hoping that Sundy Best keep experimenting and gaining traction - we could use more guys like them.

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