An album by any other name would sound as sweet…
What's in a name? Sugarland marks the first full release by Talk Normal, a Brooklyn duo comprised of Sarah Register and Andrya Ambro. The ladies take their cues from the rich history of New York's No Wave scene – with artists like DNA and Lydia Lunch serving as inspiration for their unsettling blasts of sound and fury. Therefore, Sugarland most likely has nothing to do with country artists or the hometown of this reviewer. What it is is the sound of Talk Normal making a name for themselves.
Talk Normal first appeared on the scene earlier in 2009 with the release of their fine Secret Cog EP. The EP found the band staking their claim to the No Wave legacy while bringing a fresh perspective to the famously fickle genre. The EP felt wildly unhinged and appropriately messy. Now, as 2009 draws to a close, Sugarland finds the band tightening up, locking in, and expanding on the ideas of their debut EP.
"Polish" is not something usually associated with No Wave, a genre famously centered on dissonance and ugliness. The No Wave tradition is one of confrontation and challenge -- forever asking the audience to squeeze into uncomfortable, squeamish places. This stance is the antithesis of polish and sonic smoothness. So, after the welcome sloppiness and woozy production of the Secret Cog EP, Sugarland feels a bit more polished. It's not that the songs on Sugarland are markedly different from the ones on Secret Cog -- there's still plenty of arresting passages of noise and songwriting skill – it just comes off more focused and professional. With a record deal comes a certain seriousness, I suppose. It's largely to the benefit of Sugarland through the clarity of the sonic layers, but the rough-hewn edges of their debut EP have been sanded down.
This, however, doesn't undercut the power and force of conviction on Sugarland. "Hot Song" opens the album with the type of lively polyrhythmic percussion from Ambro that colored so much of Secret Cog. "In a Strangeland" continues the strong start and the polyrhythmic bashing with hammered-on intensity. "Mosquito", however, piles up the sludge rather than pounding it away through force. The track staggers and lurches under the weight of guitar squall. Talk Normal expresses a desire to build atmosphere and dread with "Mosquito" in a way that goes beyond their previous output. The sludge suits them and adds another dimension to their sound – it's the type of useful patience that balances their impetuous, pounding brutality.
Talk Normal boldly takes a stab at Roxy Music's "In Every Dream Home a Heartache" in the latter half of Sugarland. The song's cathartic release gets a No Wave makeover that washes away the spangled glam of the original. The cover walks a line between straight homage and a full-on re-imagining – Register follows the cadences of the original but stretches out syllables and bends notes to amp up the emotion. She sounds weary and beaten pre-catharsis and downright ferocious afterward. Covering something so iconic takes on an element of risk, but Talk Normal balances reverence and innovation with skill.
So what is in a name? What does Sugarland mean in connection to the music of Talk Normal? It ultimately doesn't matter. What matters is this: Talk Normal is a name to remember.