Saturday, January 29, 2011

Sugar Glyder Continues Ascent With 'Lovers'

Although surely not the most boring day in history (that woeful honor goes to April 11, 1954), August 4, 2010, was still rather unremarkable. Weather was seasonably warm across the country. The stock market behaved in its characteristic downtrending manner. No one particularly notable died, nor were there any noteworthy news stories that day. But that night on the corner of 32nd Street and 7th Avenue, Arcade Fire played a packed Madison Square Garden and a clogged (the Internet is a series of tubes, mind you) online live YouTube audience in support of their long-awaited Neon Bible followup, The Suburbs. The same Win Butler blog heartthrob who brought Merge Records its greatest record since the mythic In the Aeroplane Over the Sea with Funeral was performing in one of the most storied American venues this side of Radio City. No longer was this Canadian collective a Montreal secret. If it hadn't happened already, then August 4, 2010, surely marked Arcade Fire's arrival as a bona fide arena rock band. Like Kings of Leon before them, Arcade Fire had successfully risen from obscurity and indiehood to the mainstream—and accomplished the feat largely on the quality of their music alone. This was no corporate force-feeding by way of ClearChannel airwave saturation; rather, this was a direct result of old-fashioned good music winning over the ears of the masses.

Arcade Fire's music is of the variety that sounds at home reverberating off the walls of spacious venues; that begs to be echoed by a choir of frenzied concertgoers; that requires a space large enough to can contain Sarah Neufeld's passionate violin swells, Win Butler and Régine Chassagne's matrimonious harmonies, and the band's ambitious album concepts. You might call it… epic. But don't tell anyone I told you that. After all, if there's any rock equivalent of the dubstep "filthier than..." meme, it's the brotastic label of "epic" under which all Muse, Explosions in the Sky, and Coldplay records are categorized. But like Arcade Fire and quite unlike most bands that seek to fashion an "epic" sound, North Carolina's Sugar Glyder achieves such sprawling, larger-than-life sonorities without overblown production, without kitchen sink philosophies of the-more-layered-textures-the-better, and without vocals drenched in more reverb than St. Peter’s Cathedral on a hot day. It's grandness without grandiosity.

In this respect, Lovers at Lightspeed picks up where Poor Baby Zebra left off, offering Sugar Glyder's trademark blend of soaring guitar-driven rock, hummable melodies, phonaesthetically-conscious phrasings, and an acute awareness of how to manipulate chaos and order in the way that would make the Pixies jealous. That's not to say that the band's sound is outdated, however. Combined with these foundational elements that undergird any talented rock band are quintessentially now qualities that situate Sugar Glyder at the forefront of undiscovered independent artistry. Tracks like "Deep Into Summer" find the band integrating Local Natives-esque percussion while "The Work (and What May Come)" finds Howie, Rigo, Aoyagi, and Matthews effortlessly transitioning between tempos in an impressive display of their ever-progressing songwriting abilities.

And although they might be taking stylistic cues from Death Cab for Cutie (see: Howie's vocal timbre on "Ocean, I Love You" and melodramatic lyrical direction of the EP), Minus the Bear (see: repetition of short, simplistic melodic bits in guitar), and the aforementioned Local Natives, Sugar Glyder manages to make the EP unmistakably their own. The anthemic chants in "Ocean, I Love You" recall "The OK Song" and "Blackbeard Has Feelings Too," and the organ that introduces "The Work" hearkens back to the groovy organ that commands the breakdown in We Cracked the Sky's "Ice Cubes for Igloos." And perhaps most encouraging on this effort is Daniel Howie’s further vocal development, exploring the tone colors that his instrument is capable of as he scales up and down his register. Yet Howie doesn't allow his explorations to trigger timidity; instead, he flexes his vocal capabilities perhaps most impressively on any track in Sugar Glyder’s discography in "Deep Into Summer" as he effortlessly hits a note that puts Kelcey Ayer's wail in "Airplanes" to shame. Further adding to the vocal textures on Lovers, though, are welcome appearances from Bobby Matthews and Chris Rigo, lending their pipes to the chorus in "Deep Into Summer" and throughout the EP.

Praises aside, however, I must admit that this release, while stellar, does leave some to be desired for this listener. For one, the band seems wary to delve into the weirdness hinted at in earlier songs like "B C D E," "I Fear I Might Have Lost You…," and bizarre MacSpeak interludes of previous releases. While this may be a personal preference, I feel that it’s these more avant-garde leanings that would really set apart Sugar Glyder’s music from the rest, and perhaps this avenue will be investigated on the LP to come. Moreover, the lyrical content of Lovers is rather hackneyed for my taste. Granted, this may come with the territory, being a record about lovers and all, but I confess that I did find myself wincing at some of the nauseatingly love drunk words coming out of Howie’s mouth. But if Howie’s lyricism is the EP’s downfall, then it’s also Howie simultaneously saving the release with his incredible knack for pleasant-sounding phrasings. Referred to earlier with the Pitchfork-worthy (i.e., pretentious) terminology of “phonaesthetic,” Howie’s awareness of the euphony in words is perhaps the single element the unifies Sugar Glyder’s irresistible sound—that is, along with Rigo’s precisely-engineered melodious guitar lines, Aoyagi’s thumping bass, and Matthews’s noticeably more technical drumming. Take, for instance, “One More Snow,” which finds Howie’s proficiency as a wordsmith at its finest:

Seasoned with my infatuation for love and what it means

Reasons, sweet deliberation's got me tossin’ in my sheets.

If the selection and arrangement of those words doesn’t highlight the inherent sonic beauty of the English language, then I don’t know what does. It’s rhythmic and bouncy just sitting on the page, for cryin' out loud.

And when these words do come to life on Lovers at Lightspeed, I can’t help but wonder when August 4, 2010, is going to happen for Sugar Glyder. Because if there’s any justice in this music industry, then that day is coming. The band might stand to hasten the arrival of that day by marketing themselves less as a “punk” band and more as a buzzword-exploiting “experimental indie rock/post-punk” outfit, but I foresee the end result as inevitable: Chris Rigo, Daniel Howie, Bobby Matthews, and Emily Aoyagi are going to fill arenas. It’s simply a matter of time.

One More Snow


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