Psych-rockers Sleepy Sun get better on the road

As rock fossil Steve Perry once bemoaned in some rotten power ballad, "The road ain't no place to start a family." And brother, that's just the tip of the iceberg. If you really want to know what the road isn't good for, try cramming yourself into an Econoline van along with three other nitwits and driving 16 hours to play for 45 minutes in some jerkwater town — then repeating the process every day for about a month. Turns out that as a general rule, the road is a financially, emotionally, and morally crippling proposition, survivable only with A) label support or B) an iron constitution.

Enter Sleepy Sun, with a little bit of A and a whole lotta B. Since releasing their debut disc, Embrace, almost two years ago, San Francisco's psychedelic wonderkids have abandoned jobs, relationships, and even their hometown to go all-out for a career in music. Over the past 18 months, they've logged three national tours and three lengthy sorties across the Atlantic. They've tasted the good life at large festivals, opened for artists great and sucky alike, and headlined smaller venues, all while managing not to spontaneously combust in some truck stop just south of nowhere.  

"Any stability was thrown out the van window," singer Bret Constantino says with a chuckle.  "But the sink-or-swim aspect is what keeps us going. And, since we left last February, everything has progressed, from how many people are in front of us to our musicianship. We're learning and improving."   

It's true. Frankly, if we're grading local bands on a bell curve, Sleepy Sun has blown the deal for the rest of the class. Once seen as a heavy-riffing, retro jam band with a full sensory live show and potential, the sextet has suggested through recent recorded output that it now stands on the cusp of something much bigger. Two recent cuts in collaboration with UNKLE show a radical departure from the blissed-out drone and thundering guitar eruptions that once were Sleepy Sun's bread and butter. And its just-dropped sophomore disc, Fever, builds on the psychedelic promise of the excellent-if-indulgent Embrace.   

Fever finds the band more capable and complete as a unit, with Rachel Williams now on board full-time as the ethereal vocal counterpoint to Constantino's drug-damaged bluesman. Opening track "Marina" sets the tone, swinging from a fuzzed-out magic carpet ride intro to delicate pop to maximum riffage and finally into a completely blitzed late-night drum circle. From there, without straying too far from where Embrace left off, Fever continues the trek into strange and wonderful territory. There are the usual behemoths, like "Desert God" and "Sandstorm Woman" (in which the tandem guitars of Matt Holliman and Evan Reiss prove that better living through chemistry has a tone all its own), plus the blues shuffle of "Ooh Boy," folk pop of "Rigamaroo," and the Spacemen-3-cum-prog-folk of "Acid Love." It's a beautiful, small marvel of a listen — not bad for something recorded and mixed in a brief, two-week window between tour dates.

Meanwhile, the world and especially the British press has taken notice of Fever, which means it's back in the van for a three-month stretch and yet another round of sofa-surfing to stardom. Maybe the road can be a place to start something after all: Some bands get done in by it, but in Sleepy Sun's case, it made a bunch of young and eager kids a whole lot better a whole lot faster.

"The last year and a half have been a lifetime of lessons," Constantino says. "The lifestyle of the road is the most liberating thing you can do and still feel like you're contributing to society. We provide a service, and we still pay taxes!"    

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