[22 April 2014]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
The cover of G. Love & Special Sauce’s eponymous major label debut album showed the three members of the band sitting at the counter of a diner. Garrett Dutton prepared to blow a loose straw wrapper towards the camera. 20 years on, Dutton, bassist Jimi Prescott and drummer Jeffrey Clemens have regrouped to record Sugar. The video for the song “Nothing Else Quite Like Home” and footage of the three members pow-wowing over the good old days are both shot from inside a diner. Have G. Love & Special Sauce come full circle? With Sugar, you can make good arguments for yes or no, depending on how deep your love for G. runs. Certain things remain intact after 20 years, other things have experienced a slight shift. When you get right down to it, G. Love & Special Sauce are pushing forward yet again with their unmistakable brand of hip-hop, soul and blues. If you don’t end up caring for Sugar all that much, just rest in the knowledge that it sounds only like G. Love.
After eight years apart, Dutton has regrouped with original members Jimi Prescott and Jeffrey Clemens. Prescott still plays an upright and Clemens still has that jittery “pong!” sound to his snare drum (in some songs, it’s the one thing that keeps him from sounding like Tony Allen). And with a style true to the band’s nature, they announce their return in the most laid-back manner possible. “I’m a come up man / Comin’ up” is the first lyric of the album, and Dutton sings it like it’s no big deal. At 2:33, “Come Up Man” is there to crack open the door. But “Nite Life” largely stays in that same gear. “Whiskey and women, baby / Almost wrecked my life” is another lyrical dead-end we’ve come to expect in popular music, but it’s strange to hear it popping overtop a bright reggae beat. Throw in the sweet-toothed two-note harmonica, and “Nite Life” stands no chance in the dark.
At the start of G. Love & Special Sauce’s journey, Dutton once told a journalist that he always asked the soundman to make them sound “dry”. This approach worked for the first album as well as Coast to Coast Motel. On Sugar, that approach has, erm, dried up. No longer coming in over distant, late-night A.M. radio waves, the band’s sound has grown hair, teeth and thorns. When Dutton slips a slide onto his finger, his guitar cuts through the mix so boldly that it competes with everything else for space. That includes his voice and his harmonica. In “Good Life”, it feels like all three elements are winning despite one another. Is this a good thing? Hearing that honking harp over and over again, I can’t say yes.
Sugar‘s most approachable moments are spread wide though. You’ve got the blues bend to “Smoke on the Water” with “Nothing Else Quite Like Home”, the vamp-happy title track (“Give me that sugar, sugar, sugar…” and so on) and the nifty horn shuffle featuring Shamarr Allen that is “Weekend Dance!! #2”. It’s a little repetitive, but this forty-something’s need their “(You Gotta) Fight For Your Right (To Party!)”. “One Night Romance” is the most ‘70s moment on Sugar, which is certainly saying something. Merry Clayton, who sang alongside Mick Jagger on “Gimme Shelter”, nails a sick vocal harmony with Dutton. It’s such a delicious throwback, such a toe-tapping soul spell that you might not notice that the song doesn’t have a very strong center. But hey, what’s cotton candy for anyhow?
And that’s a microcosm of Sugar. When I say that this album has no “Kiss and Tell”, it’s not to lament the fact that G. Love & Special Sauce can’t replicate past glories. It’s to say that too much of Sugar feels more like a finely-tuned jam session than a collection of songs. As welcome backs go, it will be embraced. It will remind people why they love(d) G. Love & Special Sauce so much. But if you already have a favorite G. Love album (and if you’re reading this, you certainly do), Sugar is not likely to bump it out of that number one spot.