In the Clearing
Sugarfoot’s latest represents a branching out: Unlike the Norwegian band’s earlier releases, the overall feel of the music has become “country prog” (for lack of a better term) more than simply “country rock.”
No doubt this has something to do with the fact that bassist Bent Sæther also is in Motorpsycho (not to be confused with Motorhead, although the former group did start out in kind of a prog-inspired hard rock vein before incorporating psychedelic, pop and avant-jazz elements).
Of course, founding members and guitarists Øyvind Holm and Hogne Galåen, who were in psych-pop outfit Deleted Waveform Gatherings, obviously are not ones to be tied to a mainstream musical genre either.
But perhaps the man most responsible for Sugarfoot’s evolutionary quantum leap is producer Lars Horntveth, himself a musician and composer with experimental jazz group Jaga Jazzist.
Galåen, when asked by email, was kind enough to tell Good New Music the story of how Sugarfoot ended up with such a strong producer:
“Lars Horntveth had collaborated with Motorpsycho earlier … and we needed to think fresh after two albums recorded at Rancho de la Luna, Joshua Tree,” Galåen explained. “We knew that Lars would have a different approach to this album just by knowing who he is as a producer, but also as a musician. We spent some days together before going to France and Black Box Studio and we hit it off right away. It’s fair to say that all the songwriters in Sugarfoot present songs to the band, which then either will be formed in style by every member or it will die there and then as an SF song, but this time we let Lars make all decisions regarding what songs to record. We ended up with 11 songs recorded in this amazing studio in rural France, two of which did not end up on the album, but were released as a bonus 7” with the (500-copy, sold-out) first edition of ‘In the Clearing.’ …
“After the week in the studio, we took a break from it, knowing that Lars would still be working on this from his hometown Oslo, and after a while the sessions started to reappear and we all knew that this was going to be something different. The rest of the backing vocals and percussion were finished and Lars took it to (Blanca Studio in Bergen, Norway) and mixed it together with Matias Tellez, who also did a fantastic job.
“You know, one special thing about this album is that the sound it has, is so big in the way that every tiny little detail is so clear. I’m absolutely stunned by how it came out. And the reception from the fans has been overwhelming. It is good to be in Sugarfoot at the moment and we’re gonna play as much as we can for the fans, but Norway is not the best country (in which) to be a touring band—cold snowy winters and long distances between the big cities combined with roads over big mountains. It’s surely not the best and pretty expensive but hey, in the long run it is worth it!”
Comprising another major factor in the album’s excellence are the pedal-steel stylings of member Roar Øien, whose playing sounds decidedly more non-country, perhaps even jazzy, this time around. GNM posited this perception to Galåen, who responded:
“Roar is the best pedal steel player I’ve ever heard! He can adapt to anything, whether it’s pure country or in (more of a Daniel) Lanois landscape.
“The first time we met Roar was when (Deleted Waveform Gatherings) still had some momentum. We were finishing a double album and he put down a few tracks on it. We fell in love with his playing right there and then, and he’s not just a fantastic player but also one of the best guys you’ll ever meet.
“On ‘In the Clearing’ he’s amazing. I believe Lars made an impact on him as well as all of the other members—like if our mantra was to really try to do something different, something we’d never done before. … This was really different for all of us.”
Opening track “Changing Times” is a perfect example of the newfound “country prog” motif—Jon Anderson-like vocal refrains, Chris Squire-ish bass runs, Tony Kaye-style organ riffs and even a mini acoustic guitar solo à la Steve Howe, all with the added delight of pedal-steel embellishments poking their little heads out like eels from their hiding places!
The title track’s structure and arrangement are mind-blowing and allow it to fluctuate in spirit between Poco in its finest spaced-out pedal steel hour (think “Driving Wheel” from 1974’s “Seven”) and Led Zeppelin during its Middle Eastern infatuation phase (i.e. “Kashmir” on 1975’s “Physical Graffiti”).
The pedal steel takes center stage for “Ladybug Fly,” serving as lead guitar on a light and airy song that also boasts impressive harmony vocals, acoustic strumming and a nearly military drum beat. A unique closing passage sees all the instruments except pedal steel slow to nearly a stop and then gradually resume their previous tempo, all while the vocals and pedal steel continue unabated.
Lead singer Holm hands the reins over to Sæther for the “The House on the Hill,” a Sæther composition that despite featuring a Clavinet in stark contrast to other, pseudo-electronica passages manages to overall have the feel of “Countdown to Ecstasy”-era Steely Dan!
Closing out the album is by far the proggiest track, “Foggy Town, Pt. 2—Noyant-La-Gravoyère,” named after the municipality in western France where Black Box Studio is located. It begins in earnest as a ballad, but after about four minutes the tempo shifts as the song becomes an instrumental and the keyboards morph into the sound of Tony Banks on early Genesis LPs such as “Nursery Cryme” and “Foxtrot.”
At the end of the day, Sugarfoot’s fifth effort is a fine updating of classic country rock, lending new meaning to the term “Cosmic American Music” in a way that genre pioneer Gram Parsons surely would have appreciated.
1. Changing Times
2. Cotton Candy Clouds
3. In The Clearing
5. Just A Dream
6. The House On The Hill
7. Little Miss Darkness
8. Original Sin
9. Foggy Town, Pt. 2—Noyant-La-Gravoyère
Total time: 45:00
Crispin Glover Records (vinyl)