Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Suntrodden III

Suntrodden III
“The ear tends to be lazy, craves the familiar and is shocked by the unexpected,” according to W.H. Auden. “The eye, on the other hand, tends to be impatient, craves the novel and is bored by repetition.” Biologically, this makes perfect sense. The eye can take in more information at a faster pace, and the information it takes in is literally right in front of us, so we feel better prepared to deal with it. The ear, however, gets its information around corners, from behind us, and in stereo. To the human brain, sound is intangible and unpredictable, so it’s more likely to be jarring.
By that measure, then, Suntrodden’s latest offering is perhaps the most appealing EP released in years. And if you parse that statement and think it sounds snarky, I can promise you: no snark intended.
Suntrodden III, the final installment of Erik Stephansson’s Suntrodden trilogy, is certainly familiar and expected. You’ve likely heard each track before, somewhere and somewhen, maybe on an elevator or in a pharmaceutical commercial, and when you heard it you mostly ignored it. It’s five tracks blend together, with each melting into the next and making the parts almost indistinguishable from the whole. I know that seems dismissive, but again, I can promise you it’s not.
Elsewhere on the Internet you might find comparisons to Radiohead and Elliott Smith, but III lacks the angsty immediacy of the former and the tortured-artist sensibilities of the later. It’s safer, easier, and less challenging—not quite a watered-down version of those icons, but certainly with a chaser. With III’s jangly tambourines and breezy melodies, a better comparison might be The Archies’ “Sugar, Sugar” or Simon & Garfunkel’s “April Come She Will,” or some other crowd-pleasing 1960’s folk-pop standard. III is lo-fi, indie bubble-gum.  For a musician, that could be a sentence to purgatory, but for the last time: it’s not meant to be.
Suntrodden III doesn’t break new ground or test any limits. Its melancholy opening track (“There’s a Place”) tempers the potential gloom with a xylophone, while track two (“Pure”) gives us a Summer-of-Love tambourine backbeat and an airy falsetto chorus. “Moonflower” tricks us into thinking it will break the mold, but after the piano prelude it relaxes into III’s expected groove. Then we’re on to “Never Again,” which combines all the prior pieces into a thesis-statement whole. Only the final track (“The End [Haunt Me]”) creates a momentary exception to III’s rules--with its rising orchestral opening and a moody, Ben Folds-esque piano ballad in the middle—but even this outlier eventually settles into the formula. 
So, if it’s so utterly formulaic, why give it a listen? That’s an easy one: you should listen to Suntrodden III precisely because it’s formulaic . . . and the formula works. That’s the good thing about a formula: when it’s mixed right, it does exactly what it’s supposed to do, and III is mixed right. Stephansson knows what he’s doing: the song structures are pleasantly predictable, the instrumentation is soothing, and the themes are comfy like a well-worn pair of slippers. It’s the kind of album you can play a hundred times as you go about your day—it’ll provide a soundtrack for a trip to the beach, it’ll help you decompress after a hard day at the office, and it’ll loop in the background, undistractingly, as you write a review of it. It is unassuming in the best way possible, and if that makes it elevator music, so what? No one wants to ride in a silent elevator. 
Suntrodden III’s strength lies in its safety and anonymity. Rather than blazing trails or shooting the moon, Stephansson gives us five tracks of warm blankets on cold nights. He gives us familiar and expected. He gives us bubble gum. Who doesn’t like bubble gum?
7/10 stars
Kent LeRae

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