If you listen to R&B from the 1960s, there’s a smoothness, optimism, and energy to it that modern artists aspire to but rarely achieve. Classic groups like The Temptations and The Isley Brothers and artists like Otis Redding and Marvin Gaye all had that “it factor” that not only made them instantly recognizable on the radio, but gave fans the confidence they could buy damn near anything they produced and not be sorry. I think many of the artists of the era could sing the phone book and it would still have been a hit.
Today’s R&B seems to focus more on trying to engineer that “it factor” more than letting the artists find it on their own. The biggest exceptions I can come up with these days are artists like Adele and Duffy, with a bit of that throwback sound mixed with modern sensibilities. However, it’s mostly solo artists hitting that groove and not duos or groups finding that niche.
So I was pleased to find a group like Sugar & the Hi-Lows, who just released their self-titled, full-length album on Ready Set Records. This duo out of Nashville featuring Trent Dabbs and Amy Stroup manages to channel not just that ’50s and ’60s vibe, but work in a collaborative sound that hits me a little like Robert Plant and Alison Krauss’s Raising Sand from just a few years ago. Seamless, effortless, with a soul and happiness that grooves with simple arrangements that never take away from the harmonies at the heart of it all.
That’s not to say that the album doesn’t vary from song to song, slow tempo to up-beat. Opening with the gliding “Show and Tell,” you quickly slide up to an almost Elvis-like “Two Day High” and then slip smoothly into the ballad “I’ve Got You Covered.” There’s an ebb and flow to this well-constructed release that reminds me that there are artists still treating album construction as more than a way to slap a bunch of tracks onto a CD. I love it from start to finish!
“Show and Tell” is the first track, which sets the album off on a great footing with a slow, steady romantic song. A steady drum beat, bass line, and rhythm guitar gets things off as the love song gets under way. “Loving me without a reason / Chased the meaning not the feeling / You followed through / so did you….” How many relationships does this sound like? Like any good love song, it’s immediately applicable to just about any couple with just a little personal interpretation. And with that beat throughout it never gets ahead of itself, instead reminding me of some of the mid-tempo songs to which folks could dance for hours on the dance floor.
But it ends with a rock/rockabilly song – “Skip the Line” – that would blend beautifully from “Show and Tell” or any other song on the album. Another love song, but this one more upbeat about a couple ready to head out into the world, “skipping the line” as it were and avoiding the regular grind. “Got an open sky / Got you by my side / Yeah I, I’ve got a big old heart” but ultimately “Everyone is waiting, worried about they problems / ‘cept you and I / gonna skip the line.” It just grooves along happily with a great rhythm guitar and drum keeping the beat with the duo singing their troubles away. What more could you want?
And in-between you have ballads, up-tempo, and more to keep you entertained. Eight tracks in all and one of the most up-beat albums I’ve heard in ages.
If you want a feel-good album to drive away the blues, you can’t beat Sugar & the Hi-Lows’ self-titled album. They’re going to be playing at SXSW in Austin in a couple of weeks, so I’d encourage you to check them out live if you get a chance. If not, pick up the album and enjoy the ride.
Be sure to check out their website at SugarAndTheHiLows.com for details about the group, their tour schedule, and more!