Try for a second to imagine guitar-based pop as commercially viable again. Imagine for a second that major record labels, y’know, those Snake Oil peddlers who support a band just enough to squeeze one hit out of them and then disappear, actually bothered to back it. And imagine also that one band with a damn good sound that rocks hard and is catchy as all hell suddenly appears on the scene.
Yes, you would either be dreaming, delusional, or drunk. But part of that is true: Fort Worth, Texas’ Sugarbomb may not be the new saviors of power-pop, but they’re close, and they do have the backing of a major label.
But what Sugarbomb really has to offer is a very effective mix of sounds (is anyone not some sort of fusion these days?) from traditional pop (think Beach Boys, Todd Rundgren, XTC) to classic rock (LOTS of Queen) and even some strange diversions clearly biased by the mainstream (there’s a Limp Bizkit-esque rap bit on one song, but try not to judge). The end product is a power-pop record that avoids being too classicist. Vocal harmonies that aren’t too “wimpy” for rock radio. In essence a band that could really and truly make it in the mainstream and still be damn good.
In 11 tracks, Bully, Sugarbomb’s major label debut, tosses off musical references left and right. “Posterchild for Tragedy”, for example, is a great late-period Beatles-esque ballad, yet it sits near the grinding rocker “Waiting” and the crazed-out Queen tribute “After All”. The band doesn’t shy away from power ballads either (“Over”), and even if the first single “Hello” is a fairly made-to-order radio-ready single a la Sugar Ray, the opener “What a Drag” features a piano intro right out of the Carole King songbook. Sugarbomb are all over the place here. But it works. And it’s one of the finest albums of 2001.
The kitchen sink approach to rock ‘n’ roll is nothing new, of course, but power-poppers seem to shy away from innovation, preferring to keep the songs under four minutes and the instrumentation of a basic four-on-the-floor rock band. Likewise, power-pop bands have had particularly bad luck commercially over the past few years, as they’ve been wedged between increasingly candy-coated pop radio and angst-inflected rock radio. There’s been little in the middle.
So what makes Bully adventurous (and, therefore, noteworthy) is how Sugarbomb incorporate some modern rock cliches without appearing pathetic. The aforementioned rap bit on “Motor Mouth” doesn’t feel in the least bit forced, nor do the synthesizers and thick production on “Hello” and the title track. While intentionally free-wheeling albums like this often fall flat, completely losing their intended audience, this one is actually stronger on repeated listens solely because its eclecticism works for, not against, it.
So try and look past the fact that these five corn-fed Texas boys look like Kid Rock. Try and look past that “Hello” has become ubiquitous on in-house radio in suburban chain restaurants. And at that, look past the major label tag, because the big boys haven’t touched this type of stuff for awhile.
// Notes from the Road
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