If there is ever some sort of indie rock awards, someone please make sure Sunday's Best vocalist Ed Reyes gets a nomination for best vocals. No doubt it's easy to overlook, but to a large degree Reyes' tone and melody help carry the L.A. quartet on their sophomore LP for Polyvinyl Records. The music onThe Californian is even more stripped down and simplistic than their debut full-length, Poised to Break. Thankfully Reyes has such a heavenly voice, for just about any other vocalist would surely find a way to ruin these pop songs. Sunday's Best has definitely matured, slowing things down and seeming content with good songwriting and hooks galore instead of the dual guitar wankerings and yelling vocals seen on their past works. The story behind the album involves lineup changes, divorce, drug abuse and recovery, and everything that comes along with it. That being said, it's easy to understand that there are a few dark undertones on some of the tunes ("Don't Let It Fade," "The Salt Mines of Santa Monica," etc.). It's all pretty subtle, but The Californian is one of those pleasant indie pop albums that will fly under the radar with many, but surely deserves a listen by all. And although this theory hasn't been tested, The Californian is most likely a great summer driving record, as is typical of the best indie pop albums. While the front of the album seems to be a bit stronger than the latter half, both parts chime in with the acknowledgement of strong music written well and executed with the capability that only comes with great maturity.
For those of you quick to jump to conclusions, I'd like to cut you off and mention straightaway that this album isn't even half as emo as the cover art makes it look. The guitars rarely rage, the meters are never odd, and the vocalist never wails like a possum in heat. If I were to label them at all, in fact, I'd just call them a pop band, plain and simple. Popular prefixes like 'power' and 'post' need not apply.
And so it goes that all over The Californian, the second full-length from the L.A.-based four-piece Sunday's Best, the guitars chime melodically, the vocalist never yells at you, and a guy known as James Tweedy (no relation) studiously offers up utilitarian basslines with a minimum of flash. The funny thing about all this is that Sunday's Best used to be totally emo, but somewhere between their debut and this album, they seem to have realized (possibly through their own introspectiveness) that they weren't very good at it and would be better off moving in next door to Sloan and the Posies and honing their songcraft.
Critical flippancy aside, the band has undergone a lot of cataclysmic change in their lives between records, including divorce, exiting members, rehab and rough tours, and these life experiences have lent more authenticity to their music. Vocalist Edward Reyes is suddenly a smooth, capable singer with a bit of 70s AM honey in his voice and it suits him, though sometimes the double tracking that's heaped on feels a little overdone. That's hardly the only cue the guys take from the 70s, though, as the chorused guitars that crop up frequently are quick to remind.
Like most pop bands with guitars, Sunday's Best are at their most affecting when the songs are trimmed of excess fat and drive the melody straight home. Opener "The Try" is nicely arranged, with several contrasting rhythmic feels, each of which appropriately support the lead material they're given. Drummer Thomas Ackerman and co-producer Tony Lash (ex-Heatmiser, drummer for No. 2) keep the sound crisp and clear and are always sure to have Reyes' voice up front and center-- an important move, as his tenor is easily the most distinctive element within the band.
Ian Moreno's lead guitar parts play a nice second fiddle to the vocals throughout the album, never intruding on Reyes' space, but adding a little more interest to the backgrounds. Yet, despite the musical subtleties present, it's a shame that the band hasn't made more attempts to broaden their overall sound, as the sonic uniformity of The Californian begins to wear as it progresses. "If We Had It Made," with its surprising, tasteful incorporation of bells into the arrangement, hints at something more expansive in the band's future.
If Reyes is the band's focal point, it certainly helps that his lyrics (co-written with Ackerman) aren't half bad. The lightly rocking "Our Left Coast Ambitions" is one of the record's best tracks, featuring sarcastic calls of "Hooray for Hollywood!" and a lead guitar part with some unusual volume and crunch, while "Beethoven St." is straightforward and unapologetically nostalgic for the street Reyes grew up on. Part of what makes "Beethoven St." work is that the feeling of nostalgia is conveyed through imagery, rather than through the whiny "I wish things were the way they were"-isms that too many songwriters get bogged down with.
Sunday's Best stretches out the structure of the final song, "Los Feliz Arms," utilizing loud/soft dynamics and some guitar heroics likely left over from their early days, but keeping it reigned in enough that you don't forget it's a pop song. But that, of course, is one of The Californian's primary shortcomings: it's just a bit too polite. I'm not advocating a feedback frenzy or a screaming fit on any of these songs, but the band could stand to be less afraid to let loose and step a bit outside of the ultra-comfortable pop trappings they're now calling home.
Between that and the overall single-hued feel of the album, it's hard to recommend this to just anybody, though fans of guitariffic indie pop should find it pretty easy to swallow. The Californian is a fine, if inessential sophomore effort from a skilled band that could be on the cusp of something great if only they'd let their guard down.
After putting out "Poised To Break" a couple years back, it quickly gained Sunday's Best, a relatively unknown band to that point a lot of attention. It landed on tons of year end top ten lists (mine included), and rightfully so. It was a sometimes subtle, though always catchy pop rock record that also fit well into the oh-so-marketable emo category. Then they hit a period of Behind The Music style band killing hardships.
One founding member, and songwriter leaves to join The Jealous Sound. Another gets divorced, and ends up in rehab. What next? Break up, purchase suits, and get real jobs? Go the Jimmy Eat World route, and pump out an ultra marketable, major label cheese bomb? Nope. Instead they regroup, recruit a new member, leave rehab, and record what is easily their best record to date.
"The Californian" is an obvious departure from "Poised To Break", though it is also a bar-raising, career defining sort of departure. The songs are more subtle this time around, though it's just as catchy. It's just that you have to listen to each song a few more times before they're stuck in your head. It's all but impossible to pin any sort of "emo-core" tag on these boys this time around. Maybe that was the intention, but I would guess they don't really care either way. The songs are generally pretty slow, but they're roll down the windows and enjoy the sunny day slow. The highlights here are a bit less obvious right off the bat, though there are a number of them. The first tracks to pop out are the unforgettable near-ballad "Beethoven St.", and slightly more rocking "Our Left Coast Ambitions". But "The Salt Mines Of Santa Monica" is also not far behind. The whole record though is well thought out as a whole, with each song in just the right spot on the record. So there it is. I'm fucking gushing, but I can't help it. This record has been a bit of an addiction for me since I got it weeks ago.
This will floor the Matador Records, big collared shirt crowd, and the younger pop rock crowd all at the same time... Outstanding.
Sunday's Best's Poised To Break was a solid debut, displaying a band that could write melodic indie rock songs that went from straight ahead power-pop to an emo-esque style. On The Californian, however, they find themselves and gel as a band, making their sophomore offering the complete package, an album that sounds like an album from start to finish (rather than a collection of songs, which Poised To Break sometimes felt like).
Another thing that makes The Californian a milestone for Sunday's Best is that it doesn't wear its influences on its sleeve.Poised To Break was quite catchy, but seemed to take the easy way out and find quick relief in the bands that Sunday's Best was trying to emulate. The Californian takes the high road and comes together quite nicely.
A lot more focused and methodical, The Californian doesn't leave the rock out, however it is not a power-pop record by any stretch of the imagination, and it doesn't even hint at emo.
"The Try" sounds pretty. The borderline falsetto vocals of Edward Reyes makes the song sound approachable and heartfelt, without making it sappy or whiny. All the while, Sunday's Best does what they do best, offering up rhythm section-driven rock music propelled by the guitars, which go from sparkling and sweet to noisy and distorted.
"Don't Let It Fade" simmers with its rich, melodic structure, dripping like rain on a windowsill after a hard day's rain in the sun. Reyes' voice sounds like it is reminiscing about a girl he used to know, one he thought he could help, tried to, but always wished he could do more. As he sings about this person in his life, you start to form an image in your mind of a girl you used to know. One that fits the same description he is painting for us, and you can't help but cry a tear or two for that special someone.
On "The Salt Mines of Santa Monica" Sunday's Best throws caution to the wind, cranks up their amps, and goes for it, ripping out a rocker that blazes the trail with loud guitars and a speedy tempo. Somehow, they manage, amongst the guitars buzzing, to keep things melodic and explosive, hooking you and reeling you in for a well-composed rocker that feels quite comfortable in any environment.
Following it up with "If We Had It Made," an easy-going, gentle number that just sits back and allows you a little time to think, the quartet sums up what they're all about. Having fun, rocking out, and still serving up music that will get stuck in your head as you sing along and get motivated to search inside yourself and think about life.
"The Salt Mines of Santa Monica" and "If We Had It Made" fit so beautifully next to each other. They are Sunday's Best's two extremes, a rocker and a song that is gentle enough to put you into a slumber and have peaceful thoughts.
"Our Left Coast Ambitions" is another buzzing rocker, while "Without Meaning" counters its rock-ness. Throughout the album the band is able to mold these two songs styles into one, letting go of it for a bit to lean one way over the other, before coming back to the center and doing what The Californian will surely be known for. This is a well-thought collection of strong, lingering songs that won't leave your mind any time soon after you hear them.Alex Steininger
In Music We Trust