A story in two parts
Wednesday, March 19, 2014
Although it’s a fair bet the band would prefer not to think of things this way, the biography of California psych rock band is a story in two parts.
The first begins, as so many musical origin stories do, with a bunch of guys in college who form a band. At first, they called themselves Mania, played garage rock, and were fronted by singer Brad Constantino. A couple of years later, in 2007, they added another lead vocalist, Rachel Fannan, and changed direction musically, becoming a psych rock band called Sleepy Sun.
Those modifications seemed to suit the band well, and when they released their debut album, Embrace, it would be to critical acclaim. The album was eventually picked up and rereleased by ATP (All Tomorrow’s Parties) Recordings, to an additional round of lauding by critics. Even persnickety Pitchfork approved, calling Sleepy Sun a group that has “designs on writing songs that still move you after the drugs wear off.”
That trend continued with the release of their sophomore album, 2010’s Fever, which saw the band further try and hone their version of stoner/psych rock and meld it with their obvious folk and classic rock influences.
As well, Sleepy Sun toured nearly constantly, racking up miles and playing show after show, in town after town. It was an effort that paid off in a reputation as a killer live band, and it was onstage where Constantino, Fannan, and Co. came closest to fulfilling the plentiful potential they’d shown on their highly praised albums. That reputation earned them a touring slot with Arctic Monkeys, as well as the Black Angels, a band to which Sleepy Sun has often been compared. Things were progressing nicely for the California psych rockers.
No matter how weird their music might get, no matter how fuzzed-out it sounded or how far down into the jamhole the band went, the dual vocals of Constantino and Fannan were a constant, compelling draw, an entry point that kept Sleepy Sun’s sound approachable while also serving to make the band distinctive. In short, it seemed they’d hit on a formula that, by all appearances, worked, and worked well.
Except that it didn’t.
Appearances can be deceiving, and behind the scenes all was not well between Fannan and the rest of the band. This discord erupted in painfully public fashion in September 2010, when Fannan abruptly left Sleepy Sun in the middle of a tour. Later, it became clear, via various statements made by Fannan and Constantino in which words like “difficult” and “volatile and “exhausting” were used freely by both parties, that the parting was as acrimonious as it was sudden and dramatic.
And so begins the second part of the Sleepy Sun story, the “after” part.
Perhaps fortunately, the band didn’t have time to consider what the breakup meant to their future, as they were too busy trying to manage what it meant in the present. They had to finish their string of U.S. dates before heading out for a European tour. They had to rearrange all their songs, culling their set list to those that could be performed with a single vocalist, jettisoning others until some future date—if such a time were to ever arrive. They had to do these things immediately, and they had to do them well enough that audiences would move past Fannan’s highly noticeable—and for a time, unexplained—absence and accept Sleepy Sun as a band that could survive, even thrive, without her.
If this were a classic comeback tale, this would be the point at which Sleepy Sun would finally and fully embrace its destiny and come into its own. But real life isn’t always like that. In real life, people often react to a situation in which they are thrown in an unanticipated direction with an overcorrection, a miscalculation that can result in an errant step before solid footing is found.
To a certain extent, that’s what Sleepy Sun’s first post-Fannan album, 2012’s Spine Hits, represented. While nothing was overtly wrong with the album, nothing was especially right either. Spine Hits was harmless, inoffensive, well-produced, pleasant. Some critics referred to it as being “safe,” a characterization that’s tough to disagree with. Simply put, Spine Hits was just fine. However, “just fine” isn’t a mark of distinction bands typically shoot for.
But Spine Hits did serve an important purpose: It showed that Sleepy Sun could, in fact, go on without Fannan. While the album wasn’t entirely realized, it had flashes of pure potential, and enough of them to suggest this band might just be on its way to regaining its footing and embracing its evolved identity.
All of which brings us to this juncture in Sleepy Sun’s second act, just a couple of months after the release of the band’s fourth album, Maui Tears, and just prior to its Sun., March 23 show at the Shakedown. With Maui Tears, Sleepy Sun has delivered on the promise shown on Spine Hits, and proven beyond a doubt that this iteration of the band can stand its own ground and can exist both alongside and separate from the Sleepy Sun of its previous life.
While some things have changed for Sleepy Sun during the tumultuous events of the past several years, one thing has remained constant: they continue to be a force to contend with live. Touring has always been this band’s mainstay—so much so that the loss of a band member caused them to miss neither a beat nor a show—and onstage they are never happier than when they are letting their freak flag fly.
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