If you listened to the previous two Sleepy Sun albums, you will notice a major change on their third, Spine Hits. The band is missing a member: singer Rachel Fannan. Strangely, the band barely mentions her departure, calling her a “backup singer” when she left, and referring to themselves now quite contentedly as a “band of brothers”. However, a little research uncovers the fact that Fannan exited the band under uneasy yet vague circumstances. Though Fannan did take less than half of the main vocal duties, her absence is felt, most clearly in the harmonies with the remaining singer, Bret Constantino (who now, it seems, harmonizes with himself, without competition).
With the male and female vocals, Sleepy Sun shared the model of fellow “stoners” Black Mountain without incorporating that band’s prog elements. What was most interesting in this double lead was the way Constantino and Fannan blended their voices together, in a sort of dual androgyny. They sounded like one another—and they could actually sing. But beyond that there is a lack of identity. Constantino has a soulful scratchy voice, which, fitted in the context of hippy stomp and boogie, might call to mind ‘90s precursors like Shannon Hoon or Chris Robinson. His voice, however, is a bit lighter, without as much personality: even when his voice isn’t backed up with harmonies, there’s a childlike aspect. Something in his tone gives his voice a kind of baby-talk, a young sound that cuts out the possible heft in his range.
Musically, the band stays well within the range of ‘60s and ‘70s guitar rock and psychedelic folk, stuck in the major downfall of most bands that get labeled “stoner,” a lack of changeup. The first two albums, Embrace and Fever, sound like versions of each other. In other words, the band had a formula, basically two different types of songs. The heavy and ponderous stomper and the folky acoustic-based sing-song. Somehow, no song quite stands out, though overall the albums still deliver a pleasant feeling. They paint you a stoner landscape that is flat, nothing that perks your head up.
In line with slimming down in its membership, Sleepy Sun creates a sleeker sound on Spine Hits as if it is trying to professionalize itself. It’s not a drastic change; you will still recognize the hazy Californian psychedelia that mixes heavy and soft for a perfect stoner blend. The opener, “Stivey Pond,” could begin the other albums, except that it is half as long as a typical track. For this album, they’ve added a new element to their writing process, a third type of song. On tracks like “She Rex” and “V.O.G.”, the band goes right for hooks, leading off with guitar riffs that hearken back to the ‘90s revamp of the wah-wah. Perhaps after touring with the Arctic Monkeys following their last album, the band learned some cues from Britpop. Their hippie lyrics and Led Zeppelin worship call to mind Second Coming-era Stone Roses. See for example, “Martyr’s Mantra,” which loops a guitar riff into what seems like a perpetual buildup that finally plateaus alongside the dreamy vocals. This leveling out is the problem. In cutting out the fat, the band may have also lost some of its flavor.
The songs on Spine Hits are tighter – clearly the mark of a band that has toured endlessly and has become sure of what it can do and where the right punches go in a song. Each track is like a puzzle that fits together the same pieces, the perfect dropout that solos an instrument or vocals, the slow tempo breakdown, the vigorous buildup, the succinct yet expansive guitar lead, the bass turnaround to set up a “jam” moment. But this clockwork element to the album ends up, like the previous albums, compressing all the songs into one level. Though the band masters texturing its songs, it still works within a clearly limited range, which is never too simple but also not too provocative. The major upshot to this method is that the album rewards repeat listens – certain moments begin to stick out, like the ecstatic end refrain on “Siouxsie Blaqq” that finally crowns a laid-back acoustic number with a meaningful sounding electric, noisy tension and release.
On the previous albums, Sleepy Sun alternated their closers. Embrace had a quiet and cute acoustic track; Fever featured a long rocker. As if to go with the professional feeling of Spine Hits, the album’s last song, “Lioness (Requiem)” creates an expectation of something bit, but never quite delivers. In the beginning, a feeling of drama occurs in what almost is a modulation; a military drumbeat adds a purposeful feeling. But the band finally sound battle weary, like they’ve climbed a peak and now want to rest in a quiet valley. The haze has taken over. And perhaps that’s why the album presents itself as “hits”—not bong hits, though that’s possible; but rather giving the sense of a posthumous collection.