The Sunshine Boys conjured up by Neil Simon couldn’t abide each other, but that is clearly not the case with the Chicago indie-rock supergroup that borrowed the name. Singer/guitarist/keyboardist Dag Juhlin (Poi Dog Pondering, Slugs), bassist/singer Jacqueline Schimmel (Big Hello) and drummer/singer Freda Love Smith (Blake Babies, Antenna, Mysteries of Life) exude warmth, cohesion and brightness on their first two albums. Without resorting to complex instrumentation or production, the trio makes a wonderfully rich melodic sound that places songs before style and conveys thoughtful, engaging lyrics with a temporal flair and some pointed political jabs. Juhlin has a distinctively original melodic sense and a natural-sounding voice, given space and distance with a bit of reverb, that serves the lyrics’ conversational tone.
Blue Music displays the trio’s attributes: stirring songwriting, imaginative playing, space-filling arrangements, summery backing vocals and that peculiar Midwest gift for making plain speaking so powerful. The album begins with the galloping challenge of “Questions” and moves in a number of directions from there, introducing such characters as “Billy Boy,” “Caroline Yes” (with no audible connection to Brian Wilson’s “Caroline, No”), “Schoolyard Bully,” “Glider Pilot” and “John Cage.” Other than flashes of Revolver guitar picking, occasional echoes of the Who (“Only a Million Miles”) and a whisper of the metronomic Vulgar Boatmen, the deeply informed work of these unassuming veterans hies to no particularly identifiable sound (even to their own pasts), which is to its credit. The songs occasionally teeter on the edge of literalness but retain enough mystery and metaphor to stimulate thought as to motive and meaning, which – I suppose – is what makes them feel so adult. The title track, whose lyrical structure may put some in mind of Bob Dylan’s “Chimes of Freedom” (or perhaps “Forever Young”), is a wistful ode to the power of song.
Without being appreciably different, Work and Love is even better: more electric in energy, improved production (and more reverb) and a more open, airier sonic vista. (Oddly, there are moments that – intentionally or otherwise – summon up memories of the characteristic studio ambiance of Who by Numbers.) Schimmel’s fat bass is more upfront this time, swooping and ducking merrily around the melodies; Smith’s deeper drumming pushes harder than before, with more authority, but a bit further back in the mix. The lyrics here are tougher, more questioning and occasionally biting in their appraisal of a troubled time. There’s no mistaking the fury in the ominous “Infinity Girl,” in which Juhlin sings, “You’ve had your day / Now get out of her way.” And, later, “You think that anyone cares / about your thoughts and prayers? / You can count on the men / To fuck it up again.” Orwellian horrors arise in “The Serpent in Spring,” the tail of whose booming bass drum adds drama to the words: “Here is the headline / And there is the news / And where the truth lies / Is all yours to choose” and “If you want to speak out / You got to fill out a form / Meet the new norm / Where suspicion is king.” But “Don’t Keep It Inside” is a sweet song of (parental?) encouragement, “A Ghost, at Best” is a winning love song that uses self-effacement as a sales pitch, and “Summertime Kids,” if not lyrically upbeat, has positively joyously backing vocals. After all that angst, the album closes on a high point with the wrenchingly gorgeous “Right Where You Need It.” Susan Voelz (violin) and Anna Steinhoff (cello) both guest on three tracks.
Love and Work is a 19-track companion disc, mainly of demos, with handwritten annotation, that was offered to Indiegogo contributors.