Sugarplum Fairies: Introspective Raincoat Student Music

[7 July 2004]

By Patrick Schabe

There are times in life when all you want to do is hole up in your bedroom, throw on a disc of mopey tunes, and lie in bed contemplating all the ways life is turning out to be a disappointment. Maybe it’s that your friends have turned out to be phonies, or you’ve been burned by a lover, or the cards just seem to be stacked against you in general. All that seems to matter is that someone can sing a song that sympathizes with you, lets you wallow in your own sadness, and understand that you’ve been wronged.

Sugarplum Fairies wants to be that band, and Introspective Raincoat Student Music works hard to be the first disc your reach for in such a situation. With an album title that described their output directly and without apology, the Sugarplum Fairies’ second effort makes no bones about being a soundtrack for the blahs. But unlike the youthful teen angst of bands following the Smiths, or the rage-rock of broken-hearted metal acts, Sugarplum Fairies shoots for a more adult audience, one that respects the cynical outlook of a weather-beaten, streetwise life that’s only one last straw away from slipping into apathy.

Comprised of two Vienna natives who’ve transplanted to Los Angeles, the music of Sugarplum Fairies bridges this transatlantic gap with an amalgamation of European guitar pop and Americana folksiness, at once capturing the downbeat moodiness of Portishead and the shimmer of Mazzy Star, and the group dynamic is as reminiscent of Mazzy Star as the Sugarplum Fairies sound. Guitarist and composer Ben Bohm’s songs are filled with long, bent e-bow notes and plucked electrics, all carrying the husky vocals and weary lyrics of Sylvia Ryder’s compellingly haunted voice. Every track here sports downplayed but intricate instrumentation, with a bevy of rotating supporting cast members keeping time on bass and drums.

More or less every track features either the Nico-esque huskiness or the soft and high twee tones of Ryder’s jilted and jaded performance, with Bohm throwing in some vocals on a few tracks, including the creepy “Sticky Summer”, which almost slides gracelessly into goth territory with the addition of Bohm’s melodramatic low rumble. But whether it’s the starkness of “Touchdown or Fly” or the fey but maudlin “Sugarfree”, it’s a relentless tone. This is, in and of itself, not a bad thing, as the bands nails its intention, but it’s also the album’s weakness. The tone is so consistent that it overwhelms the listener, and one track carries into the next in a litany of broken people in broken scenes.

There are songs that might stand out as highlights—particularly “Some Girl”, “Sleepover”, “4 AM and Nothing New”, and “Geek”—is the album were a bit more concise or more varied in its tonality. But at 16 tracks and nearly an hour of music, it all feels like too much sameness. Not even the more hopeful catharsis of the closing track, “The Crossroads of My Mind”, can lift this disc entirely out of its funk.

To give Sugarplum Fairies its due, Introspective Raincoat Student Music succeeds in what it sets out to do. It’s a great companion to a self-reflective spell and a good, long cry. And sometimes when you’re in that state, an album’s overwhelming weight saves you by forcing you out of bed and making you turn off the disc because you suddenly need to feel more upbeat. But the single-mindedness of this disc means that you won’t turn to it unless you are in exactly that very mood.

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