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Sundrunk Angels

I love it when an album that I expect to be good is much better than expected. So far, 2011 has pulled out more than a few--- Mariana Bell's Push, Research Turtles' Mankiller Pt. 1, Zoe Muth's Starlight Hotel, and Jubal Lee Young's Take It Home, to name only a few. Thanks to a stellar outing by one of my favorite Southern California bands, Old Californio, you can add Sundrunk Angels to the list. Hell, add it twice because it is at least twice as good as I expected and I expected a lot.

You could even add it three times or maybe four because as much as this is the old Old Californio I remember from their outstanding Westering Again album, they are so far beyond it that they caught me totally off guard. As I hear it, this is one of those breakthrough albums you used to hear about when record labels actually tried to sell records instead of bowing to the Lady Gagas and the Kid Rocks in hopes of staying afloat. It costs a lot of money to pad those golden parachutes, my friends, and that seems to be their main interest these days.

Your main interest--- that is, if you have a musical bone left in your music-depleted bodies--- should be checking these guys out. Westering Again has that Eagles/Neil Young feel to it with a side of Cowboy and Heartsfield, at least that is the way I tried to explain it when I wrote the review, but Sundrunk--- aaahh, Sundrunk. How to explain?

You know that saying that less is more? Forget it. This time around, more is more and these guys hand it to you in spades. More and better! I mean that and I don't mean that because I love Westering Again and still take it with me on long drives because nothing spices up a journey more than good music. That said, I cannot deny that Sundrunk is something special.

Each band member amped up for this one. Jason Chesney takes his bass into new territory, teaming up with Justin Smith to not just lay bedrock but raise the level of each song. Levi Nunez tosses in standout effort via the Wurlitzer Piano, organ and accordion, meeting each challenge with the perfect sound. Woody Aplanalp jumps right to the top of my guitarist list with solid guitar and very impressive solo work. And Rich Dembowski? Not only is he in fine voice, but his songwriting turns atmospheric in the band's hands.

You hear it right off, the rolling and rocking rhythm of Learn To Cheat taking you on a lighthearted romp through the wheat fields, replaced by the ambitious A Cool Place In the Light (dig those vocal harmonies and jangly guitars), replaced by the Westering Again-ish Better Yet replaced by the slower-paced and even more Westering Again-ish Dark Fire. That's a lot of Old Californio begatting there, but if you know the band, when you hear it, you will understand.

If you dug the earlier albums, set yourself because it's a whole new ballgame from there on out. Sundrunk Angels is a slow, meandering slough of a song--- a lazy, sunny afternoon put to music. Aplanalp's lap steel combines with Nunez' beneath-the-track organ in a mist of sound which, though unorthodox for them, is hauntingly perfect. Eerie background vocals and the composition feel of Allon Comerado make for rock opera moments, especially when they break into a semi-Johnny B. Goode second half which cranks before slowing to a halt. Jewels and the Dross begins with a light Johnny Cash shuffle but turns quickly into a choogling rocker which houses some manic guitar from good ol' Woody--- Jeez, but I love this kind of stuff! Structured but loose.

If I didn't know better, I would think that Dembowski locked himself in a closet with the White Album before writing Just a Matter of Time because there is just enough of The Beatles in it to make it pure magic. The verse is pure Old Californio but the chorus is Brit and the musical majesty at the end builds until Aplanalp takes it to its logical conclusion. Listen to this one on headphones, loud! Unsatisfied is the light acoustic break before the finale and, as good as it is as a lead-in, is completely overshadowed by the ideal closer--- the powerful and Brit-leaning Come Tomorrow--- three minutes and fifty-eight seconds of sixties-flavored rock 'n roll. Layering band, lead vocal and background vocals in varying combinations, it picks up just enough steam to end in triumph.

In a way, I hate to say this because I just got this in my hands a few weeks ago, but I'm already pumped for the next one. Old Californio is showing the kind of progress that makes you realize that the sky may be the limit. Since hearing this, I'm looking at them in a whole new light. God knows what they will come up with next time, but you can bet your life I will be there to hear it. If I live that long.

Frank O. Gutch Jr.

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