Idol Records, 2012
REVIEW BY: Josh Allen
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 03/07/2012
“We're just a pop band,” claims Calhoun frontman Tim Locke, as he humbly defines his band of eight years. Spin Heavy Sugar a few times, and you'll realize they have a little more substance than Locke lets on. The album may have seemed drowsy on first encounter, but each and every listen afterwards, I was impressed by some subtle touch I hadn't noticed before.
Calhoun has captured the attention of the Dallas/Fort Worth music scene for the better part of a decade, boasting a mellow pop rock personality with lushly layered textures and perfect yet unassuming technique. At first glance, the quintet resembles the more laidback stylings of Ryan Adams or late ‘90s Collective Soul, but selected tunes have a decidedly more alternative, punky feel and aren't without subtle electronic influences.
For those seeking a glimpse into what Calhoun is all about, Heavy Sugar's lead-off single, “Knife Fight,” is as fine an intro as any. Don't let the aggressive name fool you; it's an easygoing blend of thumping bass drum, an upbeat, toe-tapping cadence, and buoyant rhythm guitar and vocals. Very similarly, “Horsefeathers” rises above most of the album's other tracks, with a gripping introduction driven by picked acoustic guitar that gives way to rich vocal harmonies, perfectly backdropped by touches of violin and accordion. After hearing this pair, it's hard not to be struck by the band's tight execution and subtle technical prowess and the songwriting abilities of Locke and co-writer Jordan Roberts.
Heavy Sugar is certainly universally chill, but it does change gears once or twice to maintain the listener's interest. “Don't Let Go” applies synth-heavy instrumentation and minor key to create a somewhat foreboding feel (the only such time this is even approached on the album, at least musically), which is immediately followed by “The Engineer,” with an easygoing feel and unpredictable rhythm that reminds me without fail of Death Cab For Cutie.
Meanwhile, Heavy Sugar's slower numbers achieve success, too. In particular, “Thrown In The Universe” slowly develops a dreamy aura, as the verse crescendos into a sonorous chorus featuring Locke's falsetto lyrics, as heavenly – yet faintly despairing – synthesizer and piano play softly. The marshmallowy music juxtaposes its aching, resigned lyrics: “We're thrown in the universe / It's all rehearsed, it's beautiful and sad / The things you don't want to do, you're going to do / The joke that drove you mad.” Closer “Black Coffee & Cigarettes” follows a similar pattern, as solo acoustic guitar riffs ebb and flow between sunny instrumentals and harmonizing vocals.
My only complaint with the album is its tendency to drag here and there due to its unhurried, unassertive pace, especially with resonant, bare-bones snoozers like “The Lioness” and “Snow Day.” Given their style, it's not really Calhoun's place to immediately steal your attention – but you almost want them to. Nevertheless, there's so much these guys do right that if mellow indie rock is in your wheelhouse, it's awfully tough not to like Calhoun.
(Catch Calhoun at this year's South By Southwest festival in Austin, TX, on March 13, 2012.)