This might not be the best way to listen to an album, but my first experience of hearing Maui Tears, the fourth album from San Francisco psych-rockers Sleepy Sun, was lying flat in a hospital bed, blindfolded, the tunes rolling through noise-cancelling headphones as I floated in a Percocet-induced haze. Then again, maybe this is a great way to listen to an album. A month ago I was recovering from major abdominal surgery, and the hospital ward was noisy and brightly lit. My little experiment in sensory deprivation was designed to drive away the hubbub of the ward. It worked. Yowza, it worked. This record is a spectacular document, and a perfect magic carpet to whisk one away from the ordinary world.
While I am not recommending surgery as a way to experience this band — and I’m really not recommending the abuse of prescription painkillers, for this or any other reason — the fact is that my parlous medical state led to an undeniably heightened listening experience, and quite possibly a heightened response to it as well. Ah, well — I’ve listened to it a dozen or more times since then, and there has nothing to alter my original assessment. Which is: this band is the real deal, and this album is smoking hot.
Sleepy Sun manage the dual achievement of being dreamy and spacey when they want to, with thick swathes of guitar distortion, dreamy, reverbed vocals, and languid tempos, as well as all-out rockers when so inclined, with a hyperactive rhythm section and squealing guitar solos that go on and on and on.
Opener “The Lane” falls into the languid-but-noisy side of this equation, but it is second track “Words” that really hits the sweet spot. With a classic-rock chord progression and sweetly soaring vocals, the tune manages to be anthemic and intimate at the same time. If there could be something as paradoxical as low-key arena rock, this might be it. There’s considerably more soul on display than “arena rock” might suggest, however.
Over the course of the album’s nine tracks, which range in length from under three minutes to over 10, the listener bounces between these two poles, with plenty of stops along the axis running between them. “Outside” could almost be a lost Pink Floyd tune covered by your local garage band heroes, while “11:32” brings the pounding riffage in a mighty satisfying way. With its spiky guitar line, “11:32” is a bit less soupy than much of what’s on offer here, musically at least, but the vocals are so completely lost in the mix that you can pretty much assign whatever meaning you want. That singer doesn’t sound too happy, though.
There are more solid moments here than can be listed, and quite a few transcendent ones. Mini-epic “Thielbar” once again mines that groove of laid-back-thrashy, to good effect, although — again — the vocals are mixed so far down as to be another instrument rather than a medium of transmitting, oh, words and meaning. It works well in the context of the band’s sound, but listeners hankering for clear vocals will be disappointed. Then again, the several minutes of climactic guitar freak-out more than make up for it.
Ten-minute album closer “Maui Tears” tries to mine the same down-tempo, space-rock groove as “Sandstorm Woman” from 2010’s Fever, and comes close to matching that awesomeness of that track. The loping bassline is soon submerged under layers of swampy guitar, which fall back in waves to reveal dreamy vocals that are momentarily clear before falling once more beneath the washes of sound, leading to a long instrumental section that takes the listener on a journey. Where to, exactly, will vary with the listener.
The overall impression given by this record is of a band that oozes confidence even as it stretches in new directions. This is a great album from a great band. I’m happy to report that Percocet is absolutely not required to enjoy it, and nor is anything else except a couple of good speakers and the desire to be immersed in something bigger than oneself.