In our weekly MKE Music Rewind, we revisit a notable Milwaukee song that was released before Milwaukee Record became a thing in April 2014.
Is there a subgenre of rock music more elusive than power pop? Probably not. With roots in the swinging, mod-leaning sounds of 1960s England, power pop (a term coined by Pete Townshend, no less) has come to define everyone from The Who and Small Faces to Big Star and Cheap Trick. It’s bright, it’s bold, it’s catchy. It’s also been around forever. And yet, aside from a few flashes of popularity, it’s a subgenre that has never really taken hold. Funny that a style of music so accessible and eager to please should remain so niche and uncommercial.
In Milwaukee, no band better exemplified the pleasures and pitfalls of power pop than the Sugar Stems. Formed in 2007 from a Dusty Medical stew of bands like The Goodnight Loving and Catholic Boys, the Sugar Stems were a sticky-sweet confection of earworm melodies, boy-girl harmonies, and chiming guitars. The 14-track Sweet Sounds Of The Sugar Stems landed in 2010, stuffed with infectious bubblegum-smacking tunes like “Goin’ Down,” “Beat Beat Beat,” and “I Gotta Know.” But underneath that candy-coated sheen was a playful sourness and bitter aftertaste that gave the best Sugar Stems ditties their bite.
Look no further than “Love You To Pieces,” a standout track from the group’s sophomore album, Can’t Wait (released in Germany in 2012, and in America on Dirtnap Records the following year). It’s impossibly sunny, impossibly dark, and impossibly wonderful:
As written and sung by Betsy Heibler, “Love You To Pieces” describes a love-hate relationship in terms of bubblegum, birthday cake, and even Tanqueray gin. Typical Sugar Stems. The opening lyrics:
Never liked the taste of bubblegum
Until I took a piece and put it on my tongue
And said the taste is already in my mouth
I might as well commit to it now
Moments later, that shrug of a commitment takes a sudden turn and sets up the rest of the song. The pitch-perfect chorus is the musical equivalent of that “I wanna smash your face in” scene from Punch-Drunk Love:
Want to hug and kiss and hold you all night
But sometimes when I do, I want to kill you at the same time
If I could find a way to just hold you tight
I’d wrap my arms around you ’til I’m choking off your air supply
Ready or not, I’m coming over
You can run but you can’t hide and I keep getting closer
No matter how bad it hurts, I love you to pieces
I missed the Sugar Stems during their Sweet Sounds days, but Can’t Wait—and “Love You To Pieces”—hit me at just the right time. I was finding my groove as a listener and chronicler of Milwaukee music, and I was going through all the personal highs and lows (and then some) described in the song. That a band could so effortlessly write so many winning, memorable tunes and not be on top of the world confounded me—and still confounds me to this day. The great enigma of power pop, I suppose.
Sugar Stems released a terrific follow-up to Can’t Wait in 2014, Only Come Out At Night. In recent years, however, the band has been quiet. If my records are correct, I last saw Sugar Stems at Company Brewing in August of 2017. It appears to have been their last show to date. I’d like to believe they’re not finished, however, and that their alternately sweet and sour sounds will blow up, continue to blow up, and make a “pop!” all over again.