Dead Confederate strips down sound, but trim some of the good parts as well.
Dead Confederate's 2008 debut, Wrecking Ball, was incredibly promising. The often-quoted tag of "Nirvana meets My Morning Jacket" was, actually, quite accurate -- emotionally intense, punk-influenced art rock delivered with a deep sense of Southern atmosphere. Dead Confederate managed the difficult task of creating a sound that was simultaneously wide-open and spacious, yet haunted and claustrophobic.
On Sugar, the group's second album, they've apparently decided that once was plenty. Now, they're trying to pare their sound down to tight, efficient three-minute songs. While the urge to evolve and economize is admirable, it's important to note that in order to be good at music, you don't have to be good at every kind of music. In consciously tampering with their original style, which one assumes arose naturally with the development of the band, Dead Confederate have lost sight of what made them special in the first place.
The problem may not lie in the decision to change the style a bit, though. The accompanying press release says that "instead of touring the newly penned tracks, the band spent two days learning 20 songs and spent a week reworking them, then laid half of them down". Now, many are already of the notion that while you have your whole life up until then to write your first record, you have only six months to follow it up, but is it really a good idea to announce that that's exactly what happened here? Indeed, the record does sound underwritten. Some ideas may have benefited from some road-testing and refinement (like the speedy, riff-based opening section of "Quiet Kid", before the tension is defused by a self-consciously "spooky" outro) or abandoned entirely (like singing "Run from the Gun" like a ninth-grader with a bad head cold), to the record's ultimate benefit. Even some of the better tracks are hampered by graceless transitions and undercooked arrangements, while other songs simply slip past without making any memorable impressions whatsoever. I mean, I've heard the record a few times now, and I still can't remember how "Mob Scene" or "Semi-Thought" go.
That being said, the record is not without its moments. Opener "In the Dark" and the slower, hazy "Father Figure" offer glimpses of what Wrecking Ball's sensibility would sound like slimmed down and delivered in three minutes instead of five. "Shocked to Realize" ends the album on a hushed note, full of unresolved tension and foreboding. Single "Giving It All Away" represents the biggest step forward for the band, not only maintaining the atmosphere and drive of their best work, but also introducing a tone of wounded optimism that has so far been absent (a guest turn from J Mascis on lead guitar always helps, too).
The idea of "wounded optimism" applies to Sugar as a whole, at least from a listener's perspective. There's just enough good material here to believe that the problems with the record represent a temporary misstep, or a flawed approach, rather than a fundamental change in the band. It's not too much to hope that they could still recapture the unique feel of "The Rat" or "It Was a Rose" sometime in the future. Not to be too corny about it, but Dead Confederate may yet rise again.