I’ve had a rash of new local CDs find their way to my desk the past couple months, and while each have definitely been worth a listen, staying on top of deadlines and giving each its due diligence has been tough.
At any rate, here are a couple reviews of the local stuff that’s been sent my way as of late, with more to follow in the coming weeks.
The Super Saturated Sugar Strings
Release date: May 11
I’d be lying if I said was crazy about the band name, but the Super Saturated Sugar Strings have been earning a dedicated local following in the past year, having played the summer festival circuit last year before becoming a Tap Root staple. I’d also be lying if I said I was crazy about the title, but “Harmonic Toast” does a great job capturing the endearing parts of the Sugar Strings’ live sets while adding an extra bit of drama that’s only hinted at in the shows.
With Carlyle Watt’s gruff baritone leading the charge, the group – with Kat Moore on piano and vocals, Miriah Phelps on fiddle and Theresa Taylor on cello – is a bluegrass band in a kinda-sorta sense. That’s just one of the folky nods on a disc that opens with the gypsy bounce of “Big Lee,” moves into delicate ballad territory with “Moonbridge” (which switches the vocal spotlight to Moore), tackles some slow-burning soul on “Lay It on the Table” and takes a Western swing on “The Calling” before ending up with an old-fashioned finger-pointin’ song in “Appalachian.”
But cello isn’t something you often find in bluegrass bands, and that’s where much of the added drama stems. The Sugar Strings have taken folk music’s populism and lack of sophistication and dressed it in that one dry-clean-only shirt in the back of the closet. The flourishes on “Torn & Battered” and “Romaypohe,” with Phelps and Taylor tangling their instruments in harmonies and countermelodies, sound closer to the concert hall than the front porch. The former, which features Eric Bleicher on timpani, gets a chamber orchestra-lite treatment, while Corwyn Wilkey adds trumpet to the latter’s Ennio Morricone-isms.
Those embellishments and the out-of-nowhere, Arcade Fire-esque mini-explosion that closes the album on “Arctic Entry” offer dynamics that are sometimes lacking a bit on the rest of “Harmonic Toast,” but they showcase a band making something out of its influences rather than re-creating them.
The Sugar Strings are playing a couple album release shows, May 17 at Out North and May 18 at the UAA Fine Arts Auditorium. The band also has a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds for a summer tour and to offset the record expenses.
"Eat Your Heart Out"
The press material for Meg Mackey’s first full-length says that the songwriter wrote most of the songs while working as a dog-mushing guide in Juneau. Judging by the collection found on "Eat Your Heart Out," I'd guess it's the job leaves you alone with your thoughts quite a bit.
The album was recorded last year at the Twisted Penguin Studios in Spenard, with local musicians Evan Phillips and James Dommek Jr. of the Whipsaws signed on as producers. Both also played on the record, along with a host of other locals. Since recording the album, Mackey has moved back to Anchorage and made that cast her backing band, whose influence adds a lot of twang to Mackey’s otherwise twangless songwriting.
When left mostly bare on tracks like on “Writing Rhythms,” the songs serve as the framework for the real star of the show, Mackey’s voice. And while lines like “everything I do, I do for you” have been repeated too many times in too many other songs to make much of an impression at this point, it’s really just an excuse to let Mackey belt it out.
It’s more impressive to hear her do that with the full band kicking behind her on songs like “Angelina” and “Rendered Useless.” I like Meg Mackey the singer/songwriter just fine, but I’m a bigger fan of Meg Mackey the frontwoman.