I’ve been known to be strict in my criticism of vocalists. There are many artists who sing well, even have good voices and powerful voices. But what sets a distinctive professional singer apart from the multitudes -- in my estimation -- is their unique ability to sound exceptional, their mastery of inflection, phrasing and if they sound quite different from the mainstream singers – even better. But some of that would be God's gift and not something developed through lessons. Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole, Joni Mitchell, Tom Waits (though he does sound like the missing link between Louis Armstrong, Howlin' Wolf and Captain Beefheart). Barbra Streisand, Laura Nyro, Janis Joplin, Grace Slick, Bob Dylan, Emmylou Harris -- hell, even Donovan, Iggy Pop, Gary Brooker (Procol Harum) and Ray Charles. There are others, of course.
Some are more song stylists than good singers -- Dean Martin and Johnny Cash. If I were a recording company executive, an A&R man – I wouldn’t be very successful today because it's basically cookie cutter artistry. The singers all taste good and are satisfying -- for awhile but, nourishment? Not there. If Taylor Swift is the “sound” that has a vein of gold, then there will be an onslaught of Taylor Swift sound-a-likes. Years ago that happened to Alanis Morrissette (who is actually quite good). When she hit pay dirt several female singers came into the spotlight with their vocal angst lined up with their whiney approaches. Some scored briefly, others folded up their tents. Holly McNarland was actually a good one -- check her "Coward." Stylists like Paul Cole, Joan Osborne, Jewel, Aimee Mann, Maria Mckee, Natalie Merchant and Sinead O'Conner fell by the wayside -- but because they were all great singers, and stylists -- with great material and musicians -- they maintain a loyal audience to this day.
What Alanis had that the rest of the wannabes didn’t was material, a very unique sound and a potent presentation. This goes back decades. The Beatles sounded great and then The Buckingham’s came with “Kind of a Drag.” It almost sounded like The Beatles but then the best of them all came knocking: The Knickerbockers with "Lies," which was scary good as a Beatles rip....no, not rip-off -- it was a viable Beatles imitation.
Bob Dylan had dozens of copiers through the years. But the one that came closest to 1965 Dylan was a singer and band with the unremarkable moniker of Mouse and the Traps. He sounded almost like someone who could demo Dylan songs for publishers if Dylan wasn’t available. Folk singer Barry McGuire released "Eve of Destruction," and that sounded like it leaned toward Dylan. At least more so than say Phil Ochs. After Jim Morrison passed away a singer named Phantom came out with “Calm Before the Storm” and everyone thought it was a lost Morrison track or maybe Jim wasn't dead after all. The group America came out with “A Horse with No Name,” and everyone thought it was Neil Young. Any singer who sings so well, with all those attributes, will always have other artists who will try to emulate and copy their sound. It just confirms that they have something special. Mama's and the Papa's and then Spanky & Our Gang -- but, both groups were actually wonderful.
That brings me to San Francisco’s The Sugar Ponies’ (together since 2004) with lead singer Suzanne Kramer who DOES have a unique sound of her own. Matter of fact, I don’t even think she has hit her stride yet. She has a wonderful tone, not country, folk, rock, or bluegrass. Her classic sound is evident on their song “Please Pull Over.” She has such an intriguing delivery that I immediately had to play the song over several times. Are there influences? Of course, who doesn’t have influences, or obvious reminders of others who came before? But, the comparisons would be surface comparisons and not deep seeded ones. Some have suggested she is similar to Lucinda Williams. Lucinda Williams? Suzanne is not even mining the subject matter Lucinda is famous for, nor does she sound remotely like Lucinda.
There is no wrecked car along the highway, trailer park babes and beer guzzlers with The Sugar Ponies. There is no pencil thin moustache Don Juan skipping out through the second story hotel window because the lady’s two-hundred pound, tattooed husband is banging on the door. Voice? Lucinda is gruf, tough, road-worn, and she sings about trials and tribulations. Lucinda wears cracked leather and denim. Suzanne is satiny and at times maybe a little wool-blend. Suzanne also wears denim -- designer denim and slightly scuffed cowboy boots. How do I know this? Well, in the Dylan cover if she were Lucinda Williams’ influenced she would sing with more vinegar, sarcasm and muscle. She doesn’t. She sings more like a woman who is simply going to walk out in the middle of the night and let you figure it all out…. alone. While she is 200 miles away sipping daiquiris next to some bearded guy who is the "most interesting man in the world."
The acoustic piano & Hammond B3 by Austin de Lone anchors the song, the drum shuffles are absolutely wonderful and that kind of beat is appropriate. The song speeds along in a manner that grabs attention. A band called Spear of Destiny had a powerful song years ago called “I Remember” and that song, as well, had that type of strong melodic piano. Bottom-line: Suzanne is her own woman on tracks like this. She has a firm hold on the wheel and she knows where she is going. Also…Suzanne has a remarkable way of shaping her lyrics as she sings, and putting emphasis where an average singer wouldn’t. Takes talent...and good instincts. Suzanne and Michael have this together.
Suzanne goes from sweet vocalizing, which is not one of my favorite types of singing, to a vocal crossed with sweetness but with a little vinegar. She’s the dressing on the salad for sure. Takes some strong melodies and songs and adds flavor to the song. She could make anything that's mediocre transform into something pleasant and enjoyable. She does it brilliantly on “Blueberries.”
A song with a title like that would be way too sweet for most hard-core roots listeners. But the guitar is quietly opulent, and after a few nice beats on the drums Suzanne’s lilting vocal becomes effectively infectious…no, that’s the wrong word: her vocals are flavorful…like cream puffs. You want to stuff as many as possible into your mouth as quickly as you can. Her “la...la...la’s” are just what your ears need. Suzanne manages to do what I am never crazy about – inject a little rap – but, it works...it works perfectly. It proves that rap can work if applied correctly, and there is melody that surrounds it which many rap songs don’t have. They should call most rap songs “rant songs,” because a rap is supposed to be a cool dialogue. Somewhere along the line many rap artists lost that focus.
In this Suzanne Kramer tune a scrape of creative percussion adds additional flavor -- gives the song an added dimension. Not all songs have to have deep meaning. If they make you feel good, and you can hear that the musicians are having a good time playing it, then it's worth a listen. What I especially liked: the song gave me the same happy ears that I felt decades ago when The Rivington’s sang “Papa Oom Mow Mow.” Yes…if doo-wop has matured it can be found in a song like The Sugar Ponies' “Blueberries.” Every album should have one song that is fun. This one qualifies.
Alright, I’ve done something I don’t often do, comment on songs out of order. But, when I listened for the third time to The Sugar Ponies’ new album “It’s a Sign,” those songs I just mentioned kept banging on my ear. No doubt the musicianship is performed with expertise, and it’s loose enough without showboating. The duo (Suzanne Kramer -- vocals & her partner Michael McGovern -- guitars) even bravely open their LP with a cover song: Bob Dylan’s “You Go Your Way (and I’ll Go Mine).” Few artists open albums with a cover song. However, if they were solely trying to establish their originality by tackling an existing, established tune they certainly accomplished that. Nice grungy guitar open, then the smooth, cognac vocals of Ms. Kramer. She doesn’t sound like Joan Baez, or have the jazz tones of Joni Mitchell, Cassandra Wilson or Laura Nyro -- she isn’t country much the way Reba McIntyre or Dolly Parton are, there’s no youthful female wimpy vocalizing – like so many do. When she sings the title of the song its whispery and sensual but she maintains a grip on her interpretation. The drums thunder and it helps elevate this vintage Dylan chestnut. There is a hint of 60’s girl group in the backup and a pleasant bluesy harmonica. The song is jaunty and sung with maturity. It has a new edge on a Dylan melody but, it’s indeed a fine opener.
Crystal clear acoustic guitars opens “Find Your Own Railroad.” On this track Jamie Wright provides the bass and drum veteran Kenny Aronoff provides the beat. Suzanne sings gutsier and her melodic “ah’uh’uh’s” are a little retro but it’s lines like that, that frame a tune and makes it attractive and memorable. Her backup singers here are a little campy but you know what? It makes the song colorful and it dazzles with its potent arrangement. I absolutely love the way Suzanne pronounces her lyrics. The song itself is a well-written one and it doesn’t sound like Cyndi Lauper but has that Lauper fun in it especially as the song winds down at the end.
Just when I began to relax and believe The Sugar Ponies were basically a folkish-duo with some upbeat standard melodies they take a sharp right turn into rock land. Track four on this ten song collection is a nice rocker with blazing guitars. I am not particular with clichés in lyrics unless they are something that is new and invented by the songwriter by means of a clever turn of phrase. The Rolling Stones were always good at that. But in this lyric where The Sugar Ponies’ use of cliché could have been tiresome and standard fair they sing: “hey cowboy, you’re the bomb,” could have been a misstep. It wasn't. I must admit the way Suzanne sings it – I must make an exception. The silly cliché about “you’re the bomb,” actually works in the context of the song. Great arrangement between vocals and instruments. Quite energetic.
Grammy-Award winner producer Ed Stasium provides the power guitar in this track and he produced the entire set. I particularly enjoyed the sound of the guitar attack. Makes anyone want to get up and dance even if they have two left feet. So, I can let this slide – if something works I will digress and admit some clichés can work in your favor. “Sock it to me…” OK...yeah maybe that one’s seen better days. But, I hope readers understand what I mean: A cliché in a lyric can sound very silly ten, twenty years out in a career and if you have a hit – you’ll be singing that in your senior years. I don’t even hear the word “baby...baby” being used like it was decades ago in countless pop songs.
The Kasey Chambers and Worm Werchon song “Runaway Train,” is another cover. The Sugar Ponies prove once again how adept they are at interpreting a good song. The acoustic piano & Hammond B3 by Austin de Lone is featured again. The song starts with some dark guitar lines and Suzanne sings with effective phrasing. Her storytelling here has a high torque. It’s gripping just enough to remain entertaining. Tim Vaughan provides the steady drums and the e-bow guitar is producer Ed Stasium. This truly smokes and it’s a nice departure from other tunes and placed perfectly at track seven.
There are a variety of guest musicians and it’s all outlined in the colorful 4 panel CD package. No lyric booklet but the credits / details are quite good. Are there weak tracks? Well, I don’t know about weak – everything is played proficiently. There are some tracks that are tied up with a big bow, and there are some tracks tight like a knot. The tight knot tracks are the ones that appeal quickly. What holds everything together like a chain though is Suzanne Kramer’s vocals.
While many writers and critics will obviously compare Suzanne to more familiar artists I don’t hear it. Suzanne is too far along an original to be like many of the forerunners in the industry. She may have artists she admires but I don’t hear a lot of that sameness in what Suzanne sings.
However, what Suzanne does sound a little like is more in a vocal approach (not sound). And that would be an approach similar to the great rock-blues singer Karen Lawrence. Who is she? Too bad few in the US know her since she has received accolades for decades in Europe and in American blues circles. Aerosmith knows who she is. Their producer (Jack Douglas) produced both of her early albums. Lawrence has an impressive resume: she’d sung backup on Aerosmith, Supertramp and on Jeff Beck albums. She went on to become a great blues singer with Blue by Nature. She’s made Best Female Singer lists many times on multiple European lists. A listen to three of her most powerful pre-blues tracks would solidify anyone’s opinion. There are times when Suzanne reminds me of Karen -- pronunciation -- wise of certain lyrics at key times in a Sugar Ponies song.
Lawrence’s style, in this manner, can be found on her incredible work with her former band 1994. Songs such as: “Once Again,” “Bring It Home,” and “Don’t Break It Up,” are stunning examples of what I allude to. Of course, Karen’s famous for her ability to sustain incredible notes with ease and power. This can be heard especially toward the conclusion of “Once Again” and toward the end of “Bring It Home.” Available on YouTube if a reader is curious. So, what I’m saying is that Suzanne is in good company compared to Karen Lawrence.
The way Suzanne drops an octave (or so, it seems) but only with certain words (“Please Pull Over” – “Find Your Own Railroad”) is what caught my ear. Suzanne is quite the spark in the attractiveness of all these songs. She is compelling and those two songs are exceptional.
This album's musicians are all good but the vocalist is usually the most important factor. A band can be incredibly good but a weak vocalist, a vocalist with no personality, style and the band remains on the tarmac and never takes off. Look what happened to The Doors after Jim Morrison passed away. They recorded two albums without him and even though they had the reputation, the name and great musicians -- there was little to recommend their incarnation. There was no voice that projected any personality. The mystery, voodoo, the melodies, the grit and bite were essentially gone.
The Sugar Ponies have much to recommend them: great vocals, potent tunes, some rockier ones, a wealth of ballads (that may be their weakness though at this time) – none stabbed me in the heart. However, their application and their ability to write a ballad is evident. They will write some that are brilliant – but we will have to wait. A good ballad needs to tug harder on the heart than a rock beat grabs the feet or shakes the head.
On a whole, The Sugar Ponies are quite a rewarding and they are an enjoyable listen. I look forward to their next set.
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this review / commentary are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official position of No Depression. All photography is owned by the respective photographers and is their copyrighted image; credited where photographer’s name was known & being used here solely as reference and will be removed on request.
John Apice / No Depression / Written March 2016