With their catchy tunes, purist country blues-flavored guitar and violin and jaunty acoustic grooves, you’d never guess that the Sometime Boys started out as a spinoff of noisy, ferociously intense art-rock band System Noise. Which goes to show just how versatile that band’s brain trust, singer/guitarist Sarah Mucho and guitarist/multi-instrumentalist Kurt Leege can be. The Sometime Boys have a characteristically diverse, tuneful, smart new album Riverbed, streaming online, and a show coming up on August 28 at 9 PM at Bar Nine, 807 9th Ave. (53/54).
Summery, pastoral themes rub edges with funky rhythms, some folk noir, an instrumental and the album’s centerpiece, The Great Escape, a genuinely shattering song which might be a surprise to those unfamiliar with the Sometime Boys’ predecessor band. And it’s the best song any band has released so far this year. Mucho gets props and wins MAC cabaret awards for her gale-force, wounded contralto delivery and stratospheric, four-octave range, but she starts this one with practically a whisper as drummer Jay Cowit’s cymbals swoosh over Leege’s terse, warmly nocturnal acoustic work:
The night’s alive
I almost taste the black
This cold, it breeds
There’s no turning back
On the ground
Expired fallen leaves
All now that’s left
Are crooked lines
Can’t flee the forest for the trees
Mucho hints at gospel and then picks up with a wail as the chorus kicks in, “Fade away, into me.” You don’t usually fade away with a wail but that’s what Mucho does here, then brings it down into the second and last verse, a bitter reflection on the lure of victory and the harsh reality of defeat. Leege’s elegantly virtuosic electric guitar and Pete O’Connell’s increasingly intense bass pick it up from there; it seems to end optimistically. It’s a long song, about five and a half minutes long: stream it, but don’t multitask when you do it because you really need to just let it wash over you and hit you upside the head. If you’ve ever faded away into yourself, scowling out at the lights in the distance and wishing you were there and not slaving away at some stupid dayjob – or whatever makes you scowl – this could be your theme song.
The folk noir shuffle The Bird House is another absolutely brilliant track. Rebecca Weiner Tompkins’ plaintive violin, which usually serves as the band’s main lead instrument, wanders forlornly as Mucho relates the eerie tale of a woman alone and abandoned and losing it. Leege takes it out with a spiky solo that mingles with Mucho’s graceful, haunting, hypnotic, wordless vocals.
Several of the tracks are updates on tunes by an even earlier Mucho/Leege incarnation, the delightfully funky, opaquely ingriguing Noxes Pond. Much as Mucho’s writing tends toward the somber and serious, she has a devilish sense of humor, which comes front and center on Fake Dead Girlfriend. With a poker-faced calm over clustery, fingerpicked guitar and stately violin, Mucho explains that her family might think she’s nuts, but the world actually could use more people like her imaginary dead pal.
The rest of the album works a push-pull between a carefree, bucolic ambience and clenched-teeth angst. The album’s funkiest track, Modern Age, is an unlikely blend of soul-pop and Americana, Mucho insisting that “You can have my turn, I wanna watch it all burn.” The pensively sailing, bluegrass-tinged title track seems to be told from the point of view of a suicide. A Life Worth Living is more upbeat, hinting at a classic Grateful Dead theme, with a long, lusciously crescendoing multitracked electric guitar solo fom Leege. Irish Drinking Song isn’t the slightest bit Irish, but it’s a great drinking song, in a late-period Bukowski vein.
Pharaoh, another Noxes Pond song reinvented as newgrass, juxtaposes lithe, vintage Jerry Garcia-esque guitar with Mucho’s snarling, metaphorically bristling fire-and-brimstone imagery. There’s also the gracefully shapeshifting instrumental Wine Dark Sea; the comedic urban country number Why Can’t We Just Be Enemies; the balmy, sultry, gospel-tinged lullaby A Quiet Land; Buskin’, a tribute to performers in public spaces everywhere, and a brief instrumenal reprise at the end. The production is artful and pristine: all the layers of acoustic and electric textures build an ambience that on one hand sounds antique, yet absolutely unique and in the here and now. This band should be vastly better known than they are.