With their 5th studio album, Americana-Rockers Sleepy Driver have retained all the rollicking energy of their first release whilst adding nuance in their arrangements and sound textures. Built on the solid foundation of another ten great Peter Hicks songs, Sugar Skull displays the talents of a band in full swing across ballads, garage rockers, anthems, and progressive moody compositions. In short, it's a lovely album that encapsulates the spirit of Sleepy Driver for old fans and new listeners alike.
Opening track "Unpromise" begins with tentative acoustic guitar and rolling organ before settling into a mid-tempo jaunt. Halfway through, guitarist and co-producer Ethan Young-Lai launches the first of Sugar Skull's many perfectly-toned melodic solos; by the end, the sax and trumpet accents of the chorus take the spotlight for some singing and swaying of their own. This adds just a bit of a Country & Western feel to the proceedings. Lyrically, "Unpromise" is a great example of Hick's reflective yet direct style as the song's character turns from an initially regretful/cautionary tone--"It's what you can't unpromise/it's what you can't unsay/it's what you can't take back"--to the hopeful first steps of a new beginning--"I'm going to make that promise/I'm going to take that vow/I'm going to change my ways and get you back somehow."
This new approach seems to pay off with the heart-on-the-sleeve declaration of love that is "Finer Things" before taking a downward turn in "The Last Heart." Previously released in a nascent acoustic version and now the first single for this album, "The Last Heart" is a gorgeous and textured exploration of the phenomenology of broken hearts and shattered dreams. Dave Palmer's pedal steel solo and John Heinstein's organ bed take the lead in expressing these emotions, but there's an ambiguity in the song's ending. Barry Hughes and Mike Hathaway charge out of the chorus with their drums and bass as another guitar solo ends things on an elevated note; perhaps the emphasis of "Must be the last heart that's breaking" is more on the certain pronouncement that this is the last breaking heart than on the tragedy of their breaking in the first place.
The Americana lilt of the album's early tracks does not quite prepare for the scorching groove of the title track. Every instrument dances its own strong magic around a simple but aggressive lyric. The drums and bass are barely constrained in their tight pocket, the vocals spit and leer, and the listener is treated to a jazzy Rhodes solo, searing guitar solo, and the funkiest pedal steel run this reviewer has ever heard. "Sugar Skull" is a sock on the jaw in the best way, and would make quite the parting shot for a live set. The band bring a similar noisy energy to "Radio Dial" and "Lucia," the latter of which continues Hick's lyrical fascination with the subject of murder. In this song, the focus is on the paranoid tensions running through an entire town after a group of children discover the young "Lucia at the bottom of the well."
Sleepy Driver can pound and they can coo, but on the moody, progressive centrepiece "Believe/Belong" they show that they can slow burn, as well. The attention to production detail evident on this year's earlier Decomposed album is turned toward a proper song here, and the results are arresting. Finger-picked acoustic guitar and punctuating piano carry the song's beginning moments as ominous buzzes and swirls fill the soundscape like a portentous fog. Juanita Bourque's backing vocals sound less like a harmony than a beautiful haunting in the dark ambiance, and again the listener faces an ambiguity in the song's extended ending of wailful pedal steel and nuanced percussive work. Throughout, every sonic element is crystal clear while taking on the character of the darkest, haziest night. Songs like this one and the title track really beg for a proper vinyl release to tease out the details and the spaciousness of the music, and of course that cover art deserves to be experienced in 12" by 12".
Sugar Skull is quite the feat; Sleepy Driver have managed to incorporate all the best elements of their past work while moving forward to fashion an album that occupies its own creative space. Really, the only drawback is the album's brevity. At 34 minutes, Sugar Skull leaves this reviewer wanting more, and the fade-out on closer "Rubies, Diamonds and Pearls" doesn't sound like a closing statement to such a strong song sequence. Nonetheless, the album succeeds on several levels: the band is both mature and experimental, the sound is powerful and clear, and the songs are complete in themselves while also holding together as a set. Recommended for fans of Country, Americana, Rock and Roll, a Good Tune, or just those looking for a good CD to play on repeat while driving the back-roads.
Sugar Skull released on October 20, 2017 and is available via Bandcamp