Album Review: The Sapwoods – Peaks and Valleys

The Sapwoods

Peaks and Valleys

Iowa City band The Sapwoods are back with their second album titled Peaks and Valleys. While the lineup in the band has changed since their 2012 release Electric Glow, the core of Justin Swafford (vocals and guitar) and David Suchan (lead guitar) remains the same. Joining Swafford and Suchan are Brian Speer on bass, Derrick Cook on drums and Miranda Peyton on keys, vocals and guitar.

The band describes their brand of guitar-driven rock and pop on their website as “Midwestern rock and roll” which seems like an ad hoc genre until you consider the legacy of bands that have hailed from the American Midwest: Cheap Trick is from Rockford, Ill.; REO Speedwagon is from Champaign, Ill.; The Replacements, Soul Asylum and Semisonic all hailed from the Twin Cities. And Wilco is from Chicago via St. Louis.

What The Sapwoods has in common with those bands is a timeless, straightforward and no-nonsense approach to songwriting. Guitar anthems go unapologetically for the melodic hook, carrying lyrics that focus on day-to-day concerns of the human condition.

Where Electric Glow had a ramshackle, garage-band charm in the style of The Replacements, Peaks and Valleys finds the band letting go of the punky vibe of the first record. Their new songs are still loud and brash, but they achieve a more polished pop sound, reminiscent of early Elvis Costello and Big Star.

“We hoped that this album would be more of a journey for the listeners,” says Swafford. “We were pushing both sides of that energy spectrum and trying to keep it cohesive throughout and draw the listener into the narratives at play.”

This willingness to let the songs move at a natural pace allows the listener to become enveloped in the subtle textures of the songs. A great example of this is “Are You Lightning.” The mid-tempo, head-bobbing beat propels a trebly, echoed guitar arpeggio that builds to a wonderfully breezy sax solo.

It’s this attention to detail that makes Peaks and Valleys hold up while listening on headphones at work or cranked-up on the car stereo and spilling out the open windows. Summer is still here and the greatness of Midwestern rock and roll is defended for one more album. A triumph made all the more sweet by the fact that this band is in our back yard.

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