In the past year, a bona fide deluge of contemporary post-punk has blessed us. With a Protomartyr and Preoccupations gig at The Foundry looming just over the horizon, one can’t help but smile imagining what’s in store: somber rock-outs, jilted bodies on showroom floors, mouths screaming and shouting along with every disaffected number. Cloudy with a chance of pugilism. I myself have delighted in these releases thoroughly, and without claiming any superior in taste, I can at least note general threads of styling that remain consistent and define what one can expect from a self-proclaimed “post-punk” band today.
As a result of this, I jumped at the chance to review anything labeled as such, because I’m admittedly a sucker for labels. I saw Sunchoke and was immediately taken up by the name itself, a very evocative one that I only expected to house equally evocative tunes. A consistent pleasure of writing about local music is finding out about bands that have been under your nose for a long time and having the “I can’t believe I’ve been missing out on this!” moment, and hot in pursuit of this pay-off, I eagerly jumped into band’s album Compost.
On the other end of the experiencing the self-proclaimed “All-natural, free-range post-punk” band’s nearly-year-old album, I come away a little frustrated. This is in no part due to the quality of the content, because all in all, I really like what Sunchoke did on Compost. It’s just that, for all it offers, none of it is exactly “post-punk”.
Before I go further into my reasoning, I would like to highlight a few things. First off, Bobby Waterman can really write a riff. Like, damn. The titular track kicks off the album on a high note, first lapping listeners with increasingly intense waves of pretty chords before jumping into the main riff. It’s a nice riff, one of those dexterous yet tasty plucks that doesn’t sound easy but comes off as effortless in the hands of the player. Waterman’s voice is also quiet and quirky, grating in no way on the ears when we first hear it. Tom Connors also clearly wasn’t messing around on bass, playing with admirable technique and with an ear for the melodic. Peter Sovia rounds it all out with a dynamic drum performance, keeping the rhythm in toe with every move his bandmates make. One thing Sunchoke does well is ensuring that no one member is carrying things forward more than the others, which is crucial in the three-piece. Check off good musician chemistry.
Upon hearing the first song, I can only really complain about the production. It doesn’t sound as tied together as I’d personally prefer it to, especially given its stylistic promises, and I wish the bass was less buried in the mixes. This is a gripe a can ultimately set aside in favor of the tunes, but I remain weary.
All the performance tightness stays consistent with the band’s performances past the first track. What shifts immediately, though, is the style. If the first song erred towards post-punk, the next song “Keeping Up With The Times” is a total pencil-dive off into Midwestern emo waters. We get some tapping, and folks, if there’s one thing post-punk doesn’t indulge in, it’s tapping. Guitar tapping is good, and in Philadelphia, it’s definitely not something I’m unfamiliar with. I guess that with its immediate steering-wheel-jerk into something clearly not what I was sold on, I felt a little betrayed.
The album delivers a nice array of indie-rock bops, which hold fast to a dynamic diversity, all of which is executed with aplomb. Highlights are “Pinhole Projector’s” more polished hark back to floatier new wave and college rock like REM and the self-consciously odd roughneck jam that is “Character Select”. Otherwise, I do find myself tiring of Waterman’s lack of dynamic or particularly emotive vocalizations. And again, the mixing feels very procedural, with clear pans, loose mastering, and levels that don’t really do justice to any one thing.
This is, in fact, Sunchoke’s first full-length, and in accordance to that, I have little qualms with the odd experimentation which is to be expected from a band’s maiden voyage into the long-player realm. So, too, do I pardon the production due to a probable cause of “let’s just get this out however we can”. Nothing we Philadelphians haven’t seen before; Modern Baseball and Algernon Cadwallader didn’t lose much on that facet, and in fact, I think Sunchoke could have stood less polish.
When all is said and done, though, I feel like
it must be clarified: this is not what it was billed as. Is Sunchoke perhaps
heading in that direction? If so, it’s not crazy to think they could end up
there by the time they release their next project. At this rate, however, I’d
like to just see them remove such a pigeonhole from their sound and not prime
people to expect something that their music isn’t. Post-punk of the modern day
is an aesthetic choice, and if you’re not going to commit to it, there’s not
much of a point in using the term. Sunchoke IS indie rock-y, kind of emo, and
really quite enjoyable. I look forward to seeing whatever they do next.
- Tight songwriting/performance
- Dynamic song forms and moods
- A lot of potential
- Production isn’t particularly satisfying
- Lack of stylistic consistency
- Vocals performance isn’t very interesting