With increasing frequency, pop-punk bands have been courting fans older than the typical 14-year-old mall rat with surprising success: see Brand New, the Get Up Kids, and hell, even the latest blink-182 album showed a maturity unexpected from a band who once noted, “I want to fuck a dog in the ass”. With end results ranging from a wider fanbase to critical accolades, those acts’ growth has been welcomed by these ears. With that said, we come to Santa Barbara, CA, pop-punk quartet Sugarcult, who turned their solid, if unspectacular, 2001 debut, Start Static into MTV airplay, tour dates with the likes of Jimmy Eat World and a slot on the mallpunk mecca Warped Tour. Their latest, Palm Trees and Power Lines strives for the growth attained by the above-mentioned band, but comes up short.
The reason why? Too much damn moping. When Sugarcult are rocking, as they did on most of Start Static and Palm Trees, tunes like the urgent-sounding “Destination Anywhere” or the almost-punk “What You Say”, the band—singer/guitarist Tim Pagnotta, guitarist Marko 72, bassist Airin, and drummer Ben Davis—prove they deserve their Warped Tour slot. But the high-energy moments that those tunes provide are too few and far between. Bands like Sugarcult aren’t popular for their introspection; they’re popular for their guitar hooks and general catchiness. Alas and alack, somber songs like “Worst December”, “Back to California”, and “Counting Stars” dominate the album and drain whatever momentum the catchy songs have accrued. Complicating matters, Pagnotta spills too much ink chronicling girl problems (“Over”) and loneliness (“Crying”, with its clichéd “Is there anyone out there?” lyric). Alienated high-schoolers (that is to say, high-schoolers) will eat it up; older listeners will be less impressed.
Palm Trees and Power Lines makes for a frustrating listen, because there is a good band buried under this mess. Scuff up the squeaky-clean production of opener “She’s the Blade” and you’d find a surefire modern rock radio single. Meanwhile, the aforementioned “Destination Anywhere” and “What You Say” succeed precisely because the band doesn’t follow the West Coast Pop Punk Rules (adhered to religiously by Simple Plan and American Hi-Fi, both acts one could confuse with Sugarcult)—the former song’s keyboards and Strokes-y guitar line give the tune an air of NYC cool, while the latter sounds like Sugarcult might have half a clue what actual punk sounds like. Granted, neither sounds original, but at least they’re a nice change of pace and Pagnotta isn’t whining through those songs. The album’s true highlight, meanwhile, is “Head Up”, a charming pop nugget that is both warm-hearted (“Keep your head up / Your colors are beautiful”) and warmer-sounding than the rest of the album’s cold, precise production.
There’s enough evidence on Palm Trees and Power Lines to suggest that one day Sugarcult will release an album that you’ll want to borrow from your kid brother or sister, but this album ain’t it.