Sleepy Driver are returning to their roots with their new album Sugar Skull, and that means a steady flow of radio-friendly hits straight out of the 90s. The band have doubled back from the foray they made into the wilderness of instrumentals on their album Ignatius earlier this year, back into the friendly territory of college rock. Unfortunately the results are a lot like moving back into your parent’s house after finishing your degree—it may be familiar and even comforting, but it never feels quite right.
The lyrics to their track ‘Radio Dial’ might summarize the album best. As one of the more aggressive songs on Sugar Skull, it’s pushing their sound in a relatively guitar-heavy direction, while honing in on what the band is trying to recapture with their fresh initiative.
“Back to the way in, back to my white heart,
Crack like a pistol back to the start,
I caught the signal and I tuned the station,
They draw a straight line back to the start,
On the radio dial”
Vocalist Peter Hicks practically sings the lines like a mantra, willing it to come true. Maybe he’s hinting at the results of the previous album. Sleepy Driver have earned themselves a reputation as technically proficient musicians, showing off their skills no where better than on Decomposed, which was released less than six months ago. The album was a creative leap for the band as they stepped out of their comfort zone of bar stompers and campfire songs to create an imaginative collection of instrumentals. It’s a tough market to crack, though, and like a knee-jerk reflex the band were back to mid-90s light rock and acoustic ballads faster than you can say Herbie Hancock.
Sleepy Driver aren’t just revisiting their musical roots; as a visual cue they’ve also harkened back to the artwork of their debut album Steady Now (2009). The skull from their first album cover makes a reappearance as the titular sugar skull. While that leaves some expectations for the sudden transmogrification into a mariachi band—or at least a chorus of horn players—we are indulged in sickly-sweet pop numbers. Tracks like the album opener ‘Unpromise’, a song about a series of regrets and a desire to move past them, get buried in layers of high-powered gloss, regardless of the lyrical content.
The album is still has its share of bluesier songs. The hard hitting ‘Lucia’ stands out in particular, featuring lyrics that sound like the plot of a Stephen King novel. And while we’re drawn in with the concept, we’re beaten with what should be the hook ad nauseam.
The end product sounds like a mix of a Canadiana version of Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, Big Sugar and Monster Magnet, with guitar solos pulled straight from Matthew Good Band’s Beautiful Midnight. It’s all well and good for the 90s, but to move forward Sleepy Driver need to play it a little less safe.