Up to this point, the musical output of Sunburned Hand of the Man
has been expansive, but also elusive. This collective of New England
self-released at least nine CD-Rs, with several limited-run LPs
coming out in the past two years and going quickly out of print. A cover
story last year in the British music magazine The Wire, placing Sunburned
Hand at the center of a loose movement of like-minded souls including the
Charalambides, Tower Recordings and No Neck Blues Band, raised the band's
profile to a level not usually achieved with such an ephemeral catalog
the number of people who had heard of them likely dwarfed the number who had
actually heard them.
So now comes Rare Wood, their first honest-to-goodness Compact Disc, on
Massachusetts' Spirit of Orr label. And unfortunately, it turns out not to
be a very good place to start listening to them. Compared with the sludgy,
woozy grooves, chugging Krautrock space jamz and skull-scraping chants of
past albums like Jaybird and Headdress, Rare Wood starts out too
shapeless and ends up too conventional.
At their best, SHOTM are original and exhilarating a musical hive mind
that, more often than not, can hit a certain sweet spot and take things
right through the roof. This usually involves a nasty rhythm pattern,
billowing clouds of electric atmosphere, murky guitar, and mounds of echo. The Grifters meet Can for a peyote-fueled bonfire jam session that's
Jaybird. Unusual instrumentation like grass whistles, shakers, and buzzy
electronic gear swarms around the main structure, coalescing into part of
the song or working against it before fading away or starting something new.
Drone segments sound like Native American chanting, or a Spacemen 3 outtake,
or both. The music of Sunburned Hand can be truly ecstatic.
Rare Wood is just not quite there. To be fair, some of their other albums
aren't, either, but that doesn't make them throwouts they have their
moments. Plenty of other bands trying to do this stuff are completely
unlistenable, not sporadically amazing. But, mainly because Sunburned Hand
of the Man have set the bar pretty high for themselves, Rare Wood is
The disc has better fidelity than their previous stuff, but the downside is
some questionable mixing. Much of the album is drenched with vocals that can
best be described as a demented pirate with a megaphone and an echo pedal:
"Sunnnburrrned Hannnnd of th' Maaaannnnn! Raarrrrrrggh!" Instead of meshing
with the instruments and ratcheting up the trippiness, as happens on
Headdress, the singing here feels disruptive; it sounds aggressive, and
aggressively weird, and some of the music's details get steamrolled.
The band's quieter songs, typically, are atmospheric and tense, but Rare
Wood's second track, "Gyp Hawkin'" seems aimless, as if the members who
weren't on percussion at the time were deciding what to do next. The album
hits its peak at the end of "Camel Backwards," when the reverberating words
of the story-song begin to warp and swirl until they sound like a theremin,
or like the 13th Floor Elevators' creepy electric jug. Drawn-out trumpet
notes slide back and forth across the face of the track until the strands
and rhythms start to fight and get tangled. Things stay on track for a while on
the nearly 14-minute "Glass Boot," but the climax is a somewhat
by-the-numbers psych-jam my gut says "This shit is on fire!" but my head
can't quite get behind it. On the fifth and final track, the country-folk
picking of "Buried Treasure" cleans the slate.
Bottom line, if this sounds like it's up your alley, sell some plasma or
swap a kidney to get a copy of Jaybird and go from there. The hardcore
fans have probably already bought and devoured Rare Wood, but for the
merely curious, it's a difficult album to crack.