Sunburned Hand of Man
ight candles, burn incense, and clear obstructions from your chi channels—Wedlock is about music as healing, both personal and interpersonal. We Western skeptics blanch at the thought of such queasy unprovables and touchy-feely idealizations, but in the end, who’s to say? Placebo’s strong enough on its own, and too often claiming “placebo” just subtly or not-so-subtly derides those who believe in forces beyond the perceptible. Those on the music fringes have received heavy doses of revived Aquarian notions in recent years, many of which have emanated from the Sunburned Hand of Man camp. Perhaps Sunburned has been softening us for Wedlock, the clearest distillation of their family ethos and a great example of the reciprocal relationship between music, friendship, and health.
I know; I’m cringing too. But only a callous heart would deny the joy infusing the music and the occasion of Wedlock. Music and occasion are often difficult to separate in a Sunburned record, and none more so than this one, the wedding of band members Valerie Webb and Paul Labrecque in Wasilla, Alaska during the summer of 2003. Following the audio-collage opener “Procession,” a scrapbook of sorts introducing the listener to the sounds of the trip—the incessant rolling asphalt underneath the touring band, the fractured bluegrass and folk licks that find their way into the album proper, and the liturgical solemnity of priests and pianos—the remaining tracks on Wedlock are sequenced as they occurred at the time, as if the band wants to recreate the experience of the wedding for those who can’t feel the midnight sun or see Denali in the distance. It could even be a wedding present for Webb and Labrecque, a warm memory for dreary Northeastern winters.
Another greeting-card moment! Something about this album brings out the sentimentalist. Luckily Sunburned is too roughcast to convince me to thumb-tack kitty posters or divert funds to long-distance prayer healing groups. The usual dirt-in-mouth, holes-in-clothes madman spontaneity suffuses Wedlock. Regular Sunburned listeners will not find this a departure from much of their fare, except for the consistently ecstatic tone. And that is, of course, no minor factor. In fact, it makes all the difference in this inspired session, leading occasionally to you-had-to-be-there excesses, but more often prompting sympathetic grins.
Funk basslines bounce over both sides of the double album, upping the accessibility from the word go. So too do the happy yelps and yawps from both audience and band, though no boundary likely separated the two. In another user-friendly touch, John Maloney has toned down his echo-chamber chants to good-natured MC-ing that never bogs the album down in bad-trip paranoia. In fact, “The Tent City Roller” and “Wedlock” are among the most focused pieces Sunburned has put to tape, nearly danceable with their fluid rhythms and clean textures. Only towards the end of the album—and the end of the night—do things get crazy. “The Agency” loses itself in wild-eyed group chanting, and the drum-pounding mania of “Double Invincibility” certainly provided more visual entertainment than aural, as witnessed by the enthusiastic audience participation. But who among us hasn’t lost it a bit towards the end of a reception, when bow ties dangle and the open bar seems more a curse than a blessing? To err is human, and Wedlock is as human as an album gets. Regardless of its flaws, by the end, you’ll be beaming, but a dim reflection of the watershed joys lived by the group during an amazing summer. So warm and cuddly…