By Tom Guzzio.
Modern audiences will never hear Buddy Bolden, the cornetist considered to be the founding father of the first truly American musical form. There are no known recordings of his work. Despite the far reach of Bolden’s influence on artists like Louis Armstrong and Wynton Marsalis, the sound he created with his instrument – his musical fingerprint – is left to our imaginations, his tone a casualty of Bolden being too far ahead of his time.
This is just one of the many wrongs that litter the history of music, along with the fact that Sammy Davis Jr. couldn’t stay at many of the hotels he performed in, or with A Taste of Honey beating out Elvis Costello for Best New Artist at the 1978 Grammy Awards (hell, let’s just throw the Grammys as a concept in as a collective wrong).
Many would argue that the way popular music gets created today is another wrong, with songs written by committee for marginally talented “artists” whose looks are as important as their voices, if not more so.
But I disagree. The same technology that allows marginal vocalists to be auto-tuned into “artists” has also given legitimate musicians a platform previously unavailable when the recording industry held all the cards. Yes, there still exists a vast corporate music machine that vacuums up cash for a handful of Clive Davis wannabees. But there’s also a vibrant, independent industry outside of the industry, one that has embraced artists and musicians who can’t dance better than they sing, but who can create well-crafted songs that deserve to be heard, and are enjoyed when they are.
This is the place where The Solid Suns live.
There’s this idea that our tastes literally and figuratively mellow with age, and while I find the range of music I appreciate expanding (and, in some cases, getting softer), there’s still something about loud, ossicle-rattling rock and roll that never gets old, no matter how much I do. And while it may never crack the Billboard 200, Ungodly Hour – the latest album from the Las Vegas trio – makes my stereocillia stand up and shake, shake, shake, and that’s a damn good thing.
The album is sonically alluring from the start. “Buttons + Strings,” the album’s opener is a vapor trail of driving funk with a slinky pop flavor courtesy of Jim Campbell’s excellent bass playing. Jon Gamboa’s vocals groove in and out of Campbell’s wake, a smooth falsetto croon that falls a few notches during the menacing chorus: “Come on back! I’ll tear you to pieces...”
This gives way to the whiplash inducing “Existential Queen,” which is driven by Brian Keen’s relentless drumming and it’s marriage with Campbell’s bass. The rhythmic foundation Keen and Campbell create give Gamboa’s guitar and vocals a huge sonic canvas, and he uses every inch of it until he counts us out at the end.
Next comes “Overcast” – a song that repaints the blues with shades of gray. This is a band that knows the shoulders on which they stand. “Overcast” incorporates the blues form for the modern age in a way that’s authentic and not purely imitative. It’s a field song for the suburban retail worker who, as he looks at the Kardashian fueled glow coming off his flat-screen, can’t help but feel “the sun likes to shine on everyone but me.”
"Speak Easy" follows with a riff rooted at the bottom end of the scale. It's a slow song, not quite as bluesy as "Overcast," but with a weight that you feel in your chest if you play it loud enough. It's another fine showcase for Gamboa's vocal range, and his guitar solo around the 3:30 mark is razor sharp.
The band brings more playfulness to the next track, "The Little Things" which again showcases their ability to play punch-drunk funk infused rock. It's a foot stomper that's bound to be a favorite of the band's live shows, and I challenge anyone to listen to it without bobbing their head along in time.
They go deep with "Questions." Gamboa has a rebel spirit, and it takes center stage here: "who the fuck are you to tell us what to do?" It's a question that all good rock and roll should ask at one time or another, and it places The Suns within the tradition of Josh White, Woodie Guthrie, The Clash, and Rage Against the Machine.
Gamboa turns that cynical eye on himself with "Black Matter," another percussive rocker that declares "I am the perfect liar, perfect liar, now watch and learn." It's a heavy song sonically and lyrically - one that challenges fundamental notions of belief as a motivating force. One man's righteous act is another man's senseless one; your martyr is my villain.
"Voight-Kampff" is a love song of sorts. The title alludes to Blade Runner, and the test used to distinguish humans from replicants. Are we the architects of the ones we love? Do we create unattainable expectations for those we objectify?
"Violate" begins as so many of the songs on Ungodly Hour do: with a bouncy bass line from Campbell. This band is so good at playing with and around each other, something this song illustrates as each musician's part grows around the other's like wisteria, especially around the 2:50 mark, when things breakdown only to rebuild. It's a great shift tonally.
"Remember" is a classic closer (only it isn't - wink, wink). It takes everything that's good about Ungodly Hour and draws a logical, effective musical conclusion. We will remember the song, and the album, and we will listen again. It's that simple, and hidden within it is a track whose title perfectly sums up what Ungodly Hour is about: "Heavy."
Truly. Ungodly Hour is an imaginative, finely crafted rock and roll album. So why is it part of the lead up to "The Wrong Issue?" It's because of the circumstances in which it was made.
While a lot of less talented acts get as much money and studio time as they need to record their work, Ungodly Hour was made on a shoestring. It just doesn't sound like it. It is the product of blood, sweat, and an Indiegogo campaign. There's something inherently wrong about the way major labels decide who gets their support and who doesn't. Maybe any or all of the Suns should've had roles on a Disney show when they were kids? Maybe the bassist needs to put out a sex tape, or at least accidentally tweet a dick pic to get the media attention the band's music merits and deserves?
Still, the fact that something so good can be born from a small studio in a town not known as a musical hotbed does say something positive about what's possible in music today, so long as one loves making it. And the Solid Suns love for the music they make is evident throughout Ungodly Hour. Even as so much of the music industry seems so shallow and cardboard, Ungodly Hour exists and is available for all to hear. I'm not sure if that was possible before the digital age. And that makes me hopeful for the Suns' long term prospects.
Get Ungodly Hour via The Solid Suns' Bandcamp page, from iTunes, Amazon, or "wherever music is sold." Additionally, the album is available as a free digital download for all veterans, active military, police, fire, and rescue workers, and teachers. Contact the band via their Facebook page for details.