The sonic gut-punch of Mike Clark and The Sugar Sounds’ title track from their latest release Moon Rock materializes out of an unsettling psychedelic cloud layer. The wind picks up with pounding drums, bass, and organ chords. You look out, survey the musical landscape in front of you and something is just . . . different. Then you see it, the funnel cloud of swirling guitar so cutting and powerful that it could pick up a car and drop it a mile away. The reverbed vocals are tantalizingly indecipherable but the message is one of love but it is an insidious love. The kind of love that finds passion from the darkest depths but at the same time one you just know will not be sustainable. Sustainable or no, though, you jump in and hold on and descend willingly wherever the bottom may be. And that’s just the start – it’s the first cut. A song glorious in its atypicality, and certainly not something those of us familiar with this band have ever heard.
Out of “Moon Rock”, “Jet Black” materializes and the choral intro haunts like some old My Morning Jacket jam but not at all on the neo-hippy tip. Embedded hints of the Soul foreshadow what is to come. And what is to come are the straight ‘71 Curtis Mayfield vibes in “Ain’t It Hard”. In just three songs we’ve run the sonic palette of this record and we’re settling in and ready for the rest. While The Sugar Sounds have always been rooted in Soul, this is different. It has an edge. At least for a moment, gone are the soft soul-pop days this band capitalized on earlier, this shit is real and Mike Clark has nailed it entirely.
This is music that Curtis, Isaac Hayes, Sharon Jones, Donnie Hathaway would dig. While this is not copycat classic soul material by any stretch, this album is an homage to deep, long-time influences performed with all the heart and skill necessary to have it done just right. That’s the intrinsic beauty of Moon Rock. In it, we hear beautiful, warm familiarity but at the same time, it is entirely new. This is the kind of soul ethos that would not only fit squarely but stand out in the Daptone catalog.
“I’ll Be True” takes us back to a sound more reminiscent of The Sugar Sounds’ freshman effort Round and Round. “Warm Me Up”, the first single release is one that Glide covered weeks ago, so we’ll leave it to you to dig that review up but this is best served to simply be heard. “Yeah” drops us back into the “hold your person and whisper sweet nothings into their ear” category without the sap. It’s just soul-crooning at its finest and the kind of vocal work in which Clark excels.
We could go tune by tune but words seem to fall short of conveying the depth of sound and feel that only the songs here can provide. We’ll leave this review with the final cut, the one that, in my initial listen, stopped me in my tracks and had me transfixed. “You Don’t Say” is the stuff of the Shaft soundtrack. Immediately heard are elements of Isaac Hayes and The Bar-Kays mountain top recording of “Do Your Thing” but, at least initially, without the teeth and snarl (hang in there though because it does bare its teeth). This one is just a little more laid back, tentative and contemplative but the punches come in the chorus.
This project took thousands of miles to bring to fruition. From the front range of Colorado all the way to where it was mastered in Germany. this was a labor of love from musicians that worked meticulously: and that effort has paid off staggeringly.