, April 24th, 2012 09:12
Up until late 2010, Sleepy Sun could bask in the fact they were among the most enjoyable, powerful and melodic bands on the American psychedelic landscape. With two brilliant albums behind them and the capacity to be volcanic live, the Santa Cruz group had reached a true zenith in their young career.
Many things combined to make up their sparkling space-rock, which combined with elements of Americana and 60s folk-rock. Foremost among these was the contribution of singer Rachel Fannan, who lent a delicate and soulful touch to the swagger of the other singer, Bret Constantino. It was a beautiful combination, and arguably Sleepy Sun's main draw.
Then Fannan left the band in October of that year, transforming the band's sound and dynamic pretty much immediately. It's not too much of a stretch to say that Sleepy Sun without Fannan is as if Grace Slick quit Jefferson Airplane before Surrealistic Pillow. And she didn't exactly leave in amicable circumstances. In an online post, Fannan said the rest of the band were a "very difficult group of young men" with "no experience working with women". She also picked out Constantino for his temper, saying, "I had been yelled at, mocked, alienated and crushed several times by him". She cited drinking issues and depression as reasons for getting out. It was a shame, as Embrace (2009) and Fever (2010), with Fannan in full force, were both wonderful.
A thing to remember though, is that Sleepy Sun existed as an all-male five-piece long before Fannan joined them. So for them, if not their fans, this third album is not unfamiliar ground. Indeed, it is something of a release, if this confident third album is anything to go by. But as solid and 'tight' as the new Sleepy Sun sound is, Spine Hits is lacking in a number of ways.
As well as taking her vocals away, Fannan seems to have walked off with some of Sleepy Sun's colour and imagination. While Fever was a true adventure in searing psychedelia, blissful harmonies and youth, Spine Hits has its roots in more conservative rock, bereft of any unexpected directions. The weird has been toned down.
Indeed, both 'She Rex' and 'V.O.G' veer heavily towards 90s Britpop, while on the most worrying moments ('Martyr's Mantra') there is something of Velvet Revolver to Sleepy Sun. That is something that should never be. The other diluting influence is ambitions towards Queens of the Stone Age-style desert-rock, with the album, predictably enough, recorded at Joshua Tree. The band's previously delightful balance between what was classic and what was their own, threatens to be dulled into a soupy, indistinct and familiar formula that was once well below them.
There are, however, a few signs of life to be found. One thing Fannan never did when she was in the band was write the songs, and indeed a few scraps have still emerged from the five-man songwriting team. 'Siouxsie Blaqq' goes a small way to redeeming the album and is the one track that would have been worthy of a place on their previous LPs, with its touches of early Fairport Convention and Aoxomoxoa-era Grateful Dead. If nothing else, it proves the fire for creating beautiful songs still burns in them somewhere. Opener 'Stivey Pond' is also a reasonable effort, as is 'Boat Trip', but both fail to elevate the album to meaningful heights.
So while with occasional flashes of their previous excellence, Spine Hits has too many drab moments to make this anything other than their weakest work yet by far. Never underestimate the importance of a woman's touch.