It’s fitting that Sugar Stems’ 2010 debut was titled Sweet Sounds Of The Sugar Stems. Over the course of three full-length albums—including the new Only Come Out At Night—the Milwaukee power-pop purveyors have been positively sticky sweet, effortlessly tossing off infectious tunes like candy from a float. But there’s always been an agreeably sour streak running through Sugar Stems’ music. “Love You To Pieces,” from 2012’s excellent Can’t Wait, was practically schizophrenic in it’s love you/hate you sentiment. Likewise, “Baby Teeth,” the leadoff track to Only Come Out At Night, is as joyous and celebratory as anything the band has ever done, yet the song’s obsession with growing old and the “invisible mistakes” of the past lend it an air of bittersweet melancholy. That’s par for the course for the rest of album, which easily stands as the band’s most accomplished and mature album to date.
Even casual fans should know what to expect from a new Sugar Stems album: ringing guitars, rubbery bass, improbably memorable hooks, and alternately full-bodied and chirping vocals from songwriter Betsy Heibler. But Only Come Out At Night shines because of its new tricks, namely an overall sound less beholden to ’60s garage rock (though there’s still plenty of bubblegum to be found), and the addition of Andy Harris (ex-Goodnight Loving/Jaill) on organ. “Baby Teeth” and the winning title track read like ’80s radio-ready pop songs, while “Tell The Truth” contains a hint of Springsteen in its opening organ flourish. Elsewhere, the driving, wickedly funny “Radio Heartthrob” bemoans a life spent chasing an impossible rock and roll dream, and even makes some politically incorrect language go down easy. As for perfect pop choruses, take your pick: “I Know Where I’m Going,” “The One,” and “Sun Rise, Sea Change” boast some of Heibler’s best hooks to date, made all the better by the always air-tight band and that ever-present strain of sunny bitterness.
Then there’s the album’s closer, “Million Miles,” which is hands-down the most heartbreaking and lovely song Sugar Stems have ever recorded. Made up of little more than an acoustic guitar, organ, Heibler’s achingly sad vocals, and a lullaby-simple melody, the song is both a late-night plea and a lovesick promise. “When you walk into the dark / When you march into the unknown / Will the beating of my heart / Be the only sound that you know?” Heibler asks the ether. Like “Million Miles,” Only Come Out At Night is instantly memorable, unspeakably pretty, and more than a little world-weary. It’s sweet, sour, and everything in between.
Only Come Out At Night is available now from Dirtnap Records. Sugar Stems celebrate the release of the album Friday, August 22 at Cactus Club. The Grovelers and Winter Bear open the show.
- “Million Miles”
- “We Only Come Out At Night”
- “Baby Teeth”