The latest Sukilove release amps up the sound, cranks the distortion, and washes everything in dense, compressed bass, yet still retains the pop and country elements that made Sukilove stand out on prior releases.
Admittedly, I was a bit taken aback on my first listen to You Kill Me. Having enjoyed Sukilove's work on their eponymous debut full-length, You Kill Me seemed to come out of left-field, wiping away expectations of more Americana-influenced pop music from this Belgian group. The guitars are raw and noisy, the lyrics expansive, and most notably, every track surges with a murky and muscular low end that marks this as a rock record in every discernible way.
But using the hindsight afforded by this newer release, giving a closer listen to Sukilove, last year's piece of twangy joy, makes the transition seem obvious. On tracks like "As Long as I Survive Tonight", you can hear echoes of the rumbling bass and clanging drums that are so forceful on You Kill Me. Still, this disc comes as something of a reconciliation of the two sides of bandleader Pascal Deweze. While Sukilove made its initial name as a purveyor of countrified pop in the Gram Parsons tradition, Deweze got his start as a member of alt-rock outfit Metal Molly, whose one album was essentially fuzzy power pop à la Weezer. He seemed to have abandoned much of that rock bent with Sukilove, and certainly with Chitlin' Fooks, the sometime duo he formed with Bettie Serveert's Carol Van Dyk, opting instead to indulge his passion for Americana and traditional folk as a vehicle for pop. But the latest Sukilove output seems to resurrect the old Deweze to some extent, amping up the sound, cranking the distortion, and washing everything in dense, compressed bass, yet still retaining the pop and even country elements that made Sukilove stand out on prior releases. The old Sukilove is still here, you just have to look past the metallic clamor and work a little harder at excavating it from the noise.
The opening track, "Start a Life", is the first shot in Sukilove's declaration of change, and it establishes the new blueprint that You Kill Me will follow. Beginning with a rumbling kick drum/high hat rhythm and a fuzzed-out guitar foundation, Deweze slides in with his slightly twangy voice -- which always pulled off the Southern California tone surprisingly well for a Belgian -- and delivers the first line: "Take off your shoes and turn off the alarm / We're all gonna die, so please stay calm". It's not long before the layers of sonic wash and thick bass begin to build up in a soupy production, and by the time the song kicks through a laid-back chorus that belies the increasingly sinister music underneath, the song has become a full-out rocker, hinting at some influence from the neo-garage trend of the past few years. Never mind the picked notes and chimes that drift on top of the sludge ... it's only there for flavor. All this might have marginally fit into the old Sukilove formula (marginally), but if the noisy, brash tones weren't enough to indicate a new direction, the song closes with a full on psych-rock wall of distortion and a slow fade into feedback. Country what?
In addition to the garage and psychedelic influences, You Kill Me also seems more influenced by blues and blues-rock hybrids. Songs like "Girl on the Moon", "From a Blue-Eyed Girl" and "1, 2, 3, 4" all have a dirtier vibe to them, taking Sukilove in a less dusty, roadside diner direction. Deweze actually pulls off these songs convincingly as well, knowing that to sell this shift he's going to have to play the vocals grittier. On the other side of the coin, a song like "My Son" works like a Jellyfish tune swimming beneath a sheet of black ice. In spite of the fuzz effect, ever-present low rumble, and Deweze's telephone-effect vocals, there's still a delicate pop song underneath the surface, even after it breaks into a guitar-skronk bridge.
It's this kind of chameleon-like ability of Sukilove to change gears yet remain sonically consistent that keeps You Kill Me from imploding. On the one hand, you have a bit of noise experimentation like "Woe", a nearly instrumental track that combines electronic sensibilities and organic playing to form an odd Eastern chanting vibe. This co-exists with "I Didn't Mean It That Way", the most purely "old" Sukilove track on the album, made up of Deweze's country vocals and lyrics and a pristine, midnight pedal steel bend. But this is followed up by "Secrets", the final guitar breakdown, all walls and washes of feedback and metal power chords that sounds like Sonic Youth if anything. This is Sukilove? (This is a Parasol band?) Yep.
Deweze and co-producer John Morand deserve a lot of credit for making this all work. The saving grace for You Kill Me is the obvious care that went into the production and mixing of the album. The unifying sonic element is that powerful low end, and even when it lets up for brief moments, it's always stalking the listener through every track. But where this kind of predatory deep range could swallow the tracks if left raw, Deweze and Morand compress the shit out of everything, controlling every sound with surgical skill. While it might piss off listeners who'd rather keep everything rough, the production work here gives You Kill Me its power, maintaining both the album's weight and claustrophobia as well as allowing for each element to be precisely distinct and offering some breathing room between the layers.
So does this new formula work for Sukilove? Without a doubt. Where parts of Sukilove were merely pleasant and enjoyable -- nothing wrong with that, and certainly a strength of its own -- You Kill Me requires some work on the listener's part, and there are certainly rewards for the effort. Simultaneously hypnotic and confrontational, it takes a while to find the rhythm and pulse of the disc, but repeated listens offer new insights into the compositions. Once you do, the disc seems to demand that same repetition, and familiarity breathes a distinct warmth into the clamor and studio-endowed hygiene.
You Kill Me winds up being a confusing, engrossing, and even exciting album for all this chaos and control. It's sure to keep Sukilove fans on their toes, and it might even make some news fans along the way, as long as they're open to the possibility of one of the most interesting indie rock albums of the year coming from an indie pop band. But there's no telling if this sonic shift is a permanent change for Sukilove, and if it's only a momentary diversion on the way back to some folksier tunes, at least it left this record.