Portland, Maine, rockers Sun Gods in Exile make no bones about who they are or what they do. Their second album, Thanks for the Silver (Small Stone), is guitar rock all the way through – a dudely amalgam of Southern riffing and solos that puts a figurative edge to the literal “double-guitar” lineup distinction. It’s easy to imagine six-string connoisseurs swishing the work of Tony D’Agostino and Adam Hitchcock around a brandy snifter to air them out – or at very least popping the top of a can and enjoying the hiss and the fizz as a song like “Moonshine” plays out its Southern course. At times Thanks for the Silver is almost a caricature of heavy Southern rock masculinity, and coming from a band located in the northernmost state in the continental US, that has its own issues, but damned if the five-piece don’t do it well, and the sophomore outing shows marked growth from where their 2009 debut, Black Light, White Lines (review here) left off, most notably with the inclusion of Christopher Neal’s keyboards.
The effect Neal has on Sun Gods in Exile’s sound is to add melodic range and complement the riffs with long-sustained notes, as on a song like “Smoke and Fire” on the second half of the album, on which he fills out the verses behind Hitchcock’s lead vocals (everyone but D’Agostino provides backups), or “Since I’ve Been Home,” a classic road song in the same tradition with which labelmates Dixie Witch often align themselves. Despite its liberal soloing and guitar prominence, “Since I’ve Been Home” – as close as the 10-track Thanks for the Silver gets to a centerpiece – is a highlight more for Hitchcock’s vocals and those that back him for what’s probably the album’s most memorable chorus. Earlier cuts like the opening duo “Hammer Down” and “Moonshine” find D’Agostino and Hitchcock, as well as bassist JL (since replaced by his brother, Mark Lennon) and drummer John Kennedy, purposefully making room to account for Neal in the songwriting. The Hammond sounds add flourish to the riffs but are almost always in service to the guitar, as are the bulk of the rhythms, as are the structures, the vocals, and so on. If you’re someone who tunes out solos or thinks they’re needless wankery or if you’re even slightly unimpressed by scorching leads, Sun Gods in Exile simply is not the band for you. Their ballsy classicism – excellently balanced by Benny Grotto’s recording job and mix – won’t so much touch a nerve as get on one, and, frankly, you’ll miss the point of Thanks for the Silver, which if I haven’t yet made it clear, is all in the guitar.
Hell, I like riffs, and I like solos, and there were still parts of the album where I felt like I was being tested. Seven out of the 10 of these songs start with guitar, and only one begins with another instrument solo (that’d be “Moonshine,” and the drums), and most follow the same kind of structure and pacing so that, by the time the 55-minute album is over, it’s easy to feel like parts of it are a mash of boozy leads. Songs like “Climb Down” and the more grooving “Smoke and Fire” rock and rock hard, but Thanks for the Silver starts to feel samey after a while, and although the title-track is a Black Crowes-style ballad and a marked change of mood and tempo, it’s also the second to last song on the album in front of closer “I Buried My Bitch’s Car” and comes well after it should in the overall progression of the record. These songs flow – and the titular one easily has Neal’s best performance on keys; leaving behind the organ for genuine piano sounds – but are bloated at around 4:30-5:45 apiece (the first seven, anyway – “Nobody Knows” is a barn-burner at 3:17 and the last two are longer) and wind up detracting from Sun Gods in Exile’s obviously capable songwriting through methodological similarities and consistency in pace.
Add to that the feeling that the band is still adjusting to the inclusion of Neal to the lineup in terms of their craft, and Thanks for the Silver can seem off-balance as compared to the first album, which was nothing if not assured in its whiskey-breath swagger. That said, I think it’s also stronger from a songwriting standpoint, and an interesting beginning of a new era for the band, with added potential from the keys for sonic variety and more breadth of mood. They’re not there yet, though. Sun Gods in Exile still have some growing to do in terms of honing their Southern rock craft, but after two albums, I’m still pulling for them, and I still think there’s a lot of potential here. As it is, they’re good at what they do – if they weren’t, these solos would fall completely flat, and they don’t at all – but Thanks for the Silver comes off more as a collection of decent tracks than the cohesive whole one might want it to be. Still, one can’t argue with a killer riff, and there’s nothing to Sun Gods in Exile if there isn’t a steady supply of those.Maine, Portland, Small Stone, Sun Gods in Exile