Sundowners (or is it The Sundowners) return with a follow-up to their eponymous 2015 debut, with a fantastic collection of neo-psyche tunes, on Cut The Master. It’s strange that I’ve found information a little thin on the ground for this slightly delayed follow-up, compared to the first album, leading me to wonder if this album had been a struggle the group were hoping would pass under the radar. Opening track ‘Before The Store’ builds up tension for the album expertly and lays to rest any such fears that this might be a sub-par offering. In fact it’s anything but, for Sundowners sound full of bold confidence and cohesion on this album, lovingly produced by James Skelly & Rich Turvey at Parr Street Studios with “special musical features by Andy Votel”. I’m assuming these ‘special musical features’ might be the sound affects used to beautifully weave together each track, with sci-fi sound effects and bubbling psychedelic synth noises. These work extremely well throughout the collection, making sitting and listening to the whole album a wonderfully satisfying experience.
‘Before The Storm’ has a driving bass guitar driven groove from Tim Cunningham, a little reminiscent of ‘Wishes Were Horses’ from their debut. It sounds like there are more synthesisers at play than before though, which works a treat, and the track is given room to explore these new textures with a nice extended instrumental passage that doesn’t really go anywhere, but it doesn’t have to when the groove is this strong. We segue into ‘Great Beauty’ and immediately meet some incredible guitar tone from Alfie Skelly. I was blown away by his guitar playing when I saw the band live shortly after the first record was released, and it’s great to see him really shining through in the mix here. It sounds like they’ve spent more time crafting the sound and tones for this album and it really works for me: they’ve created a whole world you can lose yourself in.
The centre-piece of the sound is, as before, the dual vocals of Niamh Rowe and Fiona Skelly. Most of the time they sing in unison, and together form a powerful, classic and memorable vocal tone. It’s retro, calling back to bands like Fleetwood Mac, or perhaps more on point, if Grace Slick from Jefferson Airplane had been able to clone herself to combine her powerful mid-range vocals with a siren harmony. At the centre of the album is the title track, ‘Cut The Master’, which sees Niamh and Fiona switching to counter-point vocals, singing in turns before combining. It keeps a laid back pace, with a killer break-beat. I’m not a huge fan of mixing music studio terminology with esoteric mysticism, as the lyrics appear to be doing here when I can make them out. But, besides ‘the master’ being some sort of dominant figure, rather than a studio master tape, they don’t appear to be stretching the metaphor too far. In fact, I find the lyrics a little hard to penetrate throughout the record, but it’s clear their commitment to classic psyche goes deeper than just musical reference: these guys are playing with lyrical themes of myth and mystery like many of the groups who were around in psyche’s heyday.
‘King of the Dawn’ sees drummer Jim Sharrock getting a bit of a work out and it’s glorious to hear someone pulling off that tribal jazz drumming style pioneered by Ginger Baker. ‘The Watchful Eye’ begins with a riff that reminds me of The Stooges, ‘I Wanna Be Your Dog’, but they take that baton and run with it, capturing the energy of that track without surrendering to it. ‘Walk On In’ changes the pace a bit, a much more mellow proposition with a flute sound at its centre-piece, it might be cheeky to suggest there’s a germ of Dionne Warwick’s ‘Walk On By’ captured in there, but then I don’t think it would be unfair to say that Sundowners vibrant psychedelic rock is tempered by hints of soulful 60s pop, and here on this record the arrangements have that level of sophistication but there’s always a darkness and mysteriousness to their sound, even on the more romantic fare.
Towards the end of the album the songs really start to roll into one another. Short tracks ‘Horizon’ and ‘L’Orizon’ act as sound-effect driven song-snippets who glue the longer, more considered songs together – even ‘Cut The Master’ itself, a scratch over two minutes, feels like an introduction to the suite that comprises what would be the second side, if I were listening to this on vinyl – which may well be the ‘correct’ way to experience an album that has one foot so firmly in the past. I wouldn’t say the band are one trick ponies though, the side-stepping funk of ‘Ritual’ would fit into the work of a group like Black Grape if the production was a little different, and ‘Find Out For Yourself’ feels like ‘Heroes’-era Bowie, or, with a generous dollop of Pulp trying to do ‘Heroes’-era Bowie thrown in for good measure. All in all I’d say Sundowners have delivered a superb sounding album, which sounds like a group focussing on their playing and the sonics of their record. It sounds more solid than their debut, and a definite progression, although I would say their first album has a few more obvious melodic ear-worm tracks. Cut The Master is clearly designed to be more of a grower, one that reveals its mysteries through repeated listens. I really hope it finds an audience who are going to appreciate that time and really listen to this album, it deserves it.
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