Sugar + the Hi-Lows
Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars
The retro-fashioned Sugar & the Hi-Lows isn’t Trent Dabbs and Amy Stroup’s full time project, but it should be. This, their sophomore full length, follows 2012’s debut and two thematic EPs (Johnny Cash covers and a Christmas set). It widens the duo’s scope to include more sedate, ruminative material yet remains rooted in a ’60s sensibility.
The disc is front-loaded with its most accessible, fun, frothy and pop worthy material. The frisky rockabilly of “Bees Left the Trees” shifts into the sunshiny California groove of “Can We Just Be Adults” and the driving dance beat and soulful garage power pop of the title track. Things then come skidding into a sharp turn as the vibe shifts from playful to decidedly moody with shadowy reverb guitars of the sweetly woozy ballad “I Don’t Get High.” That’s followed by a morning-after group of songs that are lovely, well-written and sung, but lose the plot set up so perfectly for the album’s opening salvo of upbeat party tunes.
That doesn’t dampen the slow dance, string enhanced 60s groove of the bluesy “Morning Joy,” where the singers trade verses then join for the chorus of this giddy if somewhat solemn love song. The duo takes an indie side road on “Graffiti Hearts” and makes a brief return to the disc’s Motown shimmy on “Pick You Up.” But the closing two ballads seem like leftovers from a Dabbs solo disc which, as listenable as they are, feel like they are spliced from a different album.
Both Dabbs and Stroup have pleasant voices, and they sound fine together, but neither is particularly unique. That leaves something missing that other similarly styled male/female couples with more distinctive individual approaches like Susanna Hoffs and Matthew Sweet, or even Nancy Sinatra with Lee Hazelwood, have baked in.
Still, there is plenty to enjoy. If some selections like the title track don’t nab commercial airplay, it’s not for a lack of songwriting quality or talent for a duo whose enthusiasm, helped by recording the tracks live-in-the-studio, remains refreshingly contagious.