Album Review: (self-titled) The Sullivan Gang

The Sullivan Gang by The Sullivan GangThe Sullivan Gang

I’m not sure I’ve ever heard a CD in recent years that more overtly identifies itself as roots music.  From Michelle Wiegand’s acoustic cover of country music classic “Abilene,” to the ass-kicking stomp of “The Colorado Mines Song,” there’s nothing on this CD that couldn’t have been recorded 40 years ago.  It’s as though Matt Wiegand put together a musical persona from his dad’s record collection — The Sullivan Gang’s music strongly recalls bands like Mother Blues, Mason Profitt, Quicksilver Messenger Service and the rootsier side of the Grateful Dead.

This is a little unsettling for me to listen to, since I actually saw all those bands play in their heyday.  The Sullivan Gang writes and plays their music as though the last 40 years never happened.  That’s a great trick, and they mostly pull it off.  But filtered through everything I’ve heard since I was at McKinley Junior High, there are things about the Sullivan Gang that vex my ears: the noodly lead guitar that never seems to shut up in the up tempo rockers, the quavery vocal on “Love Is a Killing Thing,” and the faint whiff of patchouli that seems to lurk always in the background.

But what the hell, if the idea of a  CD of songs from the Hippie Land That Time Forgot sounds good, I think this CD would be just about perfect for you.  That sounds dismissive, and it is to a certain extent I guess it is. But at the same time, there’s absolutely nothing ironic about the Sullivan Gang, and that’s refreshing.   These songs are successfully written and performed within their own peculiar context.  For me personally, they reflect a world where the Sex Pistols, Joy Divison and Kraftwerk never happened, which is a place I can only visit, and wouldn’t want to live.  But there’s no denying the charm and sincerity they bring to this music.  And hey, they’re still young — normally to hear this sort of thing, you’re listening to scratchy LPs recorded by dead people, or seeing it performed by pudgy balding guys with unfortunate ponytails.

I should mention one performance that comes out of left field: an acoustic version of “Brother Can You Spare A Dime.”  The vocalists aren’t individually credited, and the woman who sings this — I think — appears nowhere else on the CD.  The performance of this song —  one of the greatest in the 20th century pop canon — is elegantly spare and plain, all the better to bring out the despair of the lyric. It’s my favorite song on the CD, despite seeming unrelated to anything else on it, other than “Abeline.”