BY JONATHAN LEVITT
Tucson is an alluring destination for the musical outsider. It offers up dramatic sunsets, mystical saguaro cactuses and plenty of places and ways to lose oneself. Sure Tucson has had some successful musicians climb out of the brine reaching national or even international acclaim. How many times do we need to mention Howe Gelb or the Calexico mafia in print? It’s a good thing, though, that Tucson remains resolutely defiant and self-effacing in the face of the Gelb Machine, because it allows musicians to naturally migrate to one another and pull the lever to see if things will come up all cherries or if they walk away bankrupt, all while in the shadow of the spotlight.
So here come Sundarata with their debut album The Language of the Stars. The band is composed of members from Tucson’s Infinite Beauties and Black Sun Ensemble. Language of The Stars is a record that intrigues and entertains right out of the chute. The album’s dial is perfectly positioned just left of center with much of its music informed by a love for The Rolling Stones, Jayhawks, Acetone and REM.
Ballad of French Vedette opens the album with a lovely summery ballad where Leo Graves is allowed to just flow over a groovy back beat. The song then opens up with some joyous harmonizing over some really subtle keyboards and some beautifully understated guitar playing.
Then we’re hit with the restrained masterpiece Language of the Stars. For the guitar sound, imagine the opening guitar lick from Wing’s Band on the Run. All of this is stretched over some stellar drum work. Leo Graves’ singing is really cool here like a beat poet mixed with John Trudell. Absolutely love the occasional subtle psychedelic effects on his voice.
Morning reminds me of Sweet Virginia by The Rolling Stones in all its countrified glory. Jeremy Topp leads this hootenanny on Aunt Mabel’s front porch. The track works really well and shows just how talented Sundarata really are and that they’re not above having a bit of fun.
Electromagnetic is Leo Graves’ shining moment. He’s part stream of consciousness and beat poet all rolled into one. The lyrics are worth a read on the label’s website (http://www.slowburnrecords.net/language-stars-lyrics/). This is a sweet pop tune that has the ghost of Black Sun Ensemble floating somewhere in the mix.
Wrote You Back is another high water mark for the band. The track is a wonderful retro love song pinned on the back of some groovy Hammond B3 sounding keyboard, and beautiful cyclical fretwork courtesy of Adam Lopez.
Eric Johnson turns in some beautifully light-handed production that lets the songs unfurl organically for the listener.
The final track Ages is a real departure from everything that we’ve heard thus far, it’s a sinister warped concoction of old film dialogue spliced and layered over some back masking that ends with someone saying, “The fact that we don’t get to see you as much as we like….then when we do see you we appreciate you all the more.”
I truly hope we do see more of Sundarata and that this isn’t a one off project. What the band have accomplished here is to take the best of each other’s musical talents and fetishes, forging it into a coherent well-wrought album that leaves us wondering will this be the album that finally changes the axis of power in the Old Pueblo?
The answer to that my friend remains in the language of the stars.