Round The Dial
Tom Hallet
Review: 

Vancouver-based roots quartet the Sumner Brothers (Brian Sumner, lead vocals, guitars, banjo, harmonica, Bob Sumner, lead vocals, acoustic guitars, backing vocals, Mike Ardagh, drums, and James Meger, electric and upright bass) showcase a wide variety of talents and various influences on their second, self-titled release.

The brothers ride a rustic, earthy rural groove that's akin to a multitude of venerable musical soul-mates, ranging from The Louvin Brothers to early Johnny Cash to The Band, Dylan, The Scud Mountain Boys, and Steve Earle, just to name a few, but their ouvre' is undeniably original in both style and content. This album features eight stand-out cuts written by the Sumners, a delightful pair of Carter Family covers, and one traditional number.

The siblings share both song-writing and lead singing duties throughout this disc, each with his own unique lyrical and vocal approach. Brian tends to favor bittersweet, life-ravaged tales of loss and heartbreak, his deep, distinct voice delivering urgent personal foot-stompers and shaky, gorgeous ballads with equal aplomb. Bob leans toward skewed, heartfelt love songs and eerie, visceral yarn spinnin' in a slightly higher register, and when the pair share the mic, the result is nothing short of stunning.

The record opens with the skittery, shack-shakin' swamp rocker "Both Back," a song penned and sung by Brian that ostensibly deals with the loss of his parents and his realization that his own daughter will someday undergo the same tribulations he's experienced. "I want him back, I want them both back," he growls over slightly off-kilter, gritty electric guitar, then ends the raucous rant with a dire warning: "I'll throw you down the stairs/Jump on your chest/If I knew you had a part, if I knew what was best/I want him back, I want them both back/I know it's too late, everything I love is gonna be taken away."

"Pain" follows, Brian delivering a woeful, soul-stirring and universal message in a Cash-esque rumble perfectly balanced by nimble, electrifying pickin' and plain-spoken lyrics that ring true-blue: "I better look over what I've got 'cause it won't last long/I better look over what I got/Long live pain..." This song manages to transcend any easy genre classification or off-the-cuff description, and could probably best be described as a gentle, viciously biting personal anthem.

Bob weighs in next on "My Words," a delicate, born-to-run ballad filled with world-wise, death-be-damned lyricism- "Directionless and stunned and my faith is dead/But good times they come and this road I know/A little dust and cold never hurt no one/So pack your bags, baby and that's a fact/I believe we've got ourselves a train to catch." He shares his brother's knack for capturing fascinating, timeless musical snapshots, and when Brian's voice wends its' way in to the mix, the cut almost becomes larger-than-life.

Produced (delicately and with obvious respect for the artists' own inimitable musical identities) by Derek Difilippo and recorded at "Ben Brown's Cabin" on Galliano Island in B.C., this collection of down-home, back-woods folk/rock/country joints is one of those rare recorded efforts that magically retains the group's front-porch pickin' qualities and sounds as if they're physically sitting a few feet away from the listener. Bandmates Ardagh and Meger provide a spot-on, tandem rhythm section that's so powerful and empathetic one could easily assume they're family members as well.

The traditional "Yeah Blue," which covers the life and loss of a beloved canine pal, rolls out with hypnotic strummin' and croonin', further showcases Bob's easy-going, sublime vocal delivery, and sets the stage for a pair of tight, delightfully re-interpreted A.P. Carter cuts.

"You Better Let That Liar Alone" jumps, jives, crashes and whirls with a sinfully-delicious twist, and finds the band collaborating in perfect unity, while Brian's authentic delivery of the spiritual "Way Worn Traveler" establishes this outfit's high esteem for their forebears with an emphatic exclamation point.

Bob's "Say You'll Always Be Mine" is a haunting, romantic plea for eternal love and understanding from a life-partner bolstered by keening mandolin licks courtesy of Sam Parton, and includes dizzying, memorable couplets such as, "Well Babe I know I got a hard hard head/And babe I know I got a tongue that would leave folks blind/And babe if I let you down one more time/Would they, would they still call you mine?"

Brian's stark, easy take on "Two Hands" recalls Johnny Cash interpreting a pain-wracked Kristofferson composition, proving once again that his "less-is-sometimes-best" musical approach is one of his most effective artistic weapons, as well as providing a note-perfect lead-in to Bob's lap steel-augmented "Ticket To Ride," a high-lonesome, hill-country story that covers a wide range of topics, including homelessness, crimes of desperation, ruined Vietnam War vets, and the unfaithful kiss of Judas himself.

The collection winds down with the catchy blast of Bob's bouncy, backside-of-the-batwing-doors reading of "Girl In The Window," an alternately humorous and tragic ditty concerning vanity and blind conformity that could be heard from the point of view of a New Orleans madame or Hollywood's latest "it girl" over a Dylan-meets-Steve-Earle groove.

The song literally blazes like a saloon on fire and drives home this band's awe-inspiring musical aptitude and inspirational gift for embracing, nurturing, and delivering a multitude of genre-defying, from-the-gut material that stands as a formidable testament to their bone-deep belief in themselves and the power of song. Highly recommended.

Check 'em out-this is one you'll be kicking yourself for not listening to in a year or so, guaranteed.
Review Date: 
2009