Some projects are labors of love, borne of passion for a particular style or level of artistry, of recognition of the spark that comes with a magical collaboration. Those projects tend inevitably to shine, regardless of how many people will actually get to hear them, because the music that poured out like therapy was as fulfilling for the artist as it would turn out to be for the listener. No corners were cut. No sacrifices made. Just heart and soul.
That’s the impression we get from Sugar & The Hi-Lows’ sophomore record ‘High Roller’, released this week via Ready Set Records/Milkglass. Their debut (released in 2012) set the scene; gave us the initial chapters. ‘High Roller’, meanwhile, develops the story, allowing the incomparable duo to come into their own. A duo comprised of Trent Dabbs and Amy Stroup, both solo artists and songwriters in their own right (indeed, we reviewed Trent’s latest album ‘Believer’ earlier in the year), and dynamic performers whose friendship – nay, kinship – evolved into a fully-fledged band in an entirely natural way. They found themselves inspired by old records and timeless music, the kind that inspired generations of music-makers, resulting in a flexible vintage sound that is as much Americana as it is blues, rock ‘n’ roll, soul, country and “indie” or “alternative” (which is invariably how they’ll be labelled).
‘Bees Left The Trees’, the rollicking country stomp of an opener, is the first to lay its proud claim to those long-gone days, “I know there’s plenty of dogs down on Music Row, I need some Jack, some Johnny, some Emmylou, and the ghost of the man in the Blue Suede Shoes.” Wrapped up in the crash of the drums and the grit of the guitars, you might almost miss the way they alternate between celebrating the great musicians that have left us and giving sly digs to Nashville and the modern music industry. “Well he was dancing all the way to the grave, he said shake baby shake baby shake shake shake,” Amy sings coyly but confidently, mixing references to Elvis’ famous hips with the well-known phrase “dancing on your grave” (an ultimate mark of disrespect). Plus, at least in my own interpretation, there exists a more subtle reference to Taylor Swift’s monster hit ‘Shake It Off’, “won’t you come on over baby we can shake shake shake”, a line which uses the same pitch and intonation as the line in ‘Bees Left The Trees’ (it could also be a reference to Elvis’ ‘Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On’). If that was their intention, then it is another piece of the clever puzzle that assures fans great music is still being made even if it is hard to find, and half the legends are gone. “Just cause the bees left the trees doesn’t mean there ain’t honey outside,” goes the chorus.
And one of those bands making great music is of course, themselves. From the infectious soul/blues romp of the title track, which struts to the front of the stage and encourages the audience to dance and let their crazy out, to the gorgeous acoustic ballad ‘Tennessee Quick’, a love song that misses what has been lost, they clearly have no doubts about who they are musically. There is enough variety to distinguish easily between songs, while enough sonic cohesion to pinpoint their niche and understand where they’re coming from. Swathed in atmosphere with reverberating electric guitars, close harmonies (led by Amy), and equal experimentation in melody and rhythm, the likes of the heartbreaking ‘Right Time To Tell You’ fit perfectly alongside the semi-psychedelic drone of ‘Graffiti Hearts’. They remain grounded in a bed of raw guitars, the husky tones of Trent and the ethereally feminine vocals of Amy coming together like the drifting of smoke on a light breeze on ‘I Don’t Get High’.
However, despite definite leanings toward an old-school rock sound, the pair also draw from soul for this record. ‘Morning Joy’, for example, begins with a guitar line not unlike that of Little Big Town’s recent single ‘Girl Crush’, but with a syncopated beat twice as punchy and an arrangement that ties right into the lush orchestral sounds the 60s were known for, at least in Nashville. ‘Pick You Up’ goes one further with a track straight out of the Motown era, complete with jangly guitar riff and infectious foot-tapping beat. Most importantly, they might know how to set the house on fire (‘Can We Just Be Adults’), but they also know how to mellow (‘Heaven’), and their capable balance of the two is what makes this such a great record.
Anyone can imitate an old style, but manipulating it and convincingly exporting it as your own is much more difficult. Sugar & The Hi-Lows might have called their album ‘High Roller’ as a more collective embrace of everyone’s idiosyncrasies, but it ultimately stands as their own self-fulfilling prophecy, a true description of what they have achieved.