Album Review: Sundowner – “Neon Fiction”

It’s becoming more and more difficult to name a punk band with any kind of recognition these days who doesn’t have a side project associated with it. Side projects, particularly acoustic ones, are the flavor of the day. Rarely do these projects eclipse the quality of the bands from which they sprang, but if you enjoy, say, No Use For A Name, it stands to reason you’ll dig Tony Sly’s solo acoustic albums as well. The same goes for Joey Cape and Lagwagon. Even Mariachi El Bronx, the authentic mariachi band offshoot of heavy melodic punkers The Bronx contains nuggets of The Bronx embedded within for fans of the original band.

Sundowner formed in 2007 and is the side project of The Lawrence Arms’ Chris McCaughen. The Lawrence Arms are no strangers to side projects. As well as Sundowner, there are also the bands The Falcon and Brendan Kelley and the Wandering Birds. Sundowner is the farthest departure from the more straightforwardly punk sounds of The Arms though.

In fact, Sundowner features the kind of emotional melodic rock, just this side of soft, that the pundits operating throughout the early to mid 90’s coined ‘alternative. And, technically, it is that for McCaughen, an alternative to the harsher sounds of his other bands co-habited by Kelley.

Without inferring that The Lawrence Arms are without sincerity or emotion, Sundowner gives McCaughen full range to flex his deeper feelings on wax (or plastic, or MP3) and write the music he feels best represents them in these ten cases.

Stretching out into the further reaches of the genre, Fat Wreck Chords, once solely a purveyor of the skate and pop punk that best represented the genre during most of the 90’s, have, in the this new millennium, begun representing a variety of sub-genres and styles. The speedy bluegrass (sometimes referred to as ‘streetgrass’) of Old Man Markley, the crust punk of Star Fucking Hipsters, the fairly indefinable Morning Glory, all bands you probably wouldn’t find on the label in the previous century.

Sundowner is closer in kinship to Joey Cape’s Bad Astronaut or Tony Sly’s solo work than any other band on the label. Not overly surprising then that Sundowner sounds much softer than most of the music the label will be putting out this year. And not at all a misstep for Mr. Mike when you take into consideration the high level of craftsmanship this record contains.

The slow, sad sounding acoustic guitar that leads the album in ‘Cemetery West’ feeds into a very catchy verse and an actually rather upbeat track (for this record).

‘My Beautiful Ruins’ is a song about love lost and the attempt to regain it. Not the most original subject matter for a quiet, bleak sounding song, but it’s well written and you can’t deny it’s heart.

The best song on the album is ‘Concrete Shoes’ which is also, perhaps unsurprisingly, the catchiest one.

‘Life In The Embers’ is a song about nostalgia and friendship that isn’t especially musically memorable but will no doubt be enjoyed by many when they feel like reflecting on their formative years.

By the time ‘Poet of Trash’ rolls around, Sundowner has begun repeating itself a bit, in music and sentiment, and ‘Wildfires’ puts a cap on the ‘Neon Fiction’ bottle just in the nick of time.

To be honest, I don’t often listen to music like this. I tend toward punk, hip hop and 50’s era rockabilly, depending on my mood, and there isn’t much room on my ipod for anything else. But after listening to this album for the better part of a week, I found it growing on me. It’s extremely well written, the lyrics are brutally honest and to the point and while it borrow from itself here and there, most of the songs have enough of their own flavor that you’ll find yourself drawn to certain ones fairly quickly.

All in all, a solid effort and a great record for some end of the day chill out time.

4/5 Stars

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