The Turtle in the Race: The Sumner Brothers, June 11 at Rozz-Tox Print
Music - Feature Stories
Written by Jeff Ignatius   
Thursday, 06 June 2013 07:43

The Sumner Brothers

Several reviews of the Sumner Brothers’ second studio album, I’ll Be There Tomorrow, start similarly. No Depression’s begins: “There’s no reasonable explanation why I have not heard the Sumner Brothers before ... .”

Actually, there is a reasonable explanation. The Vancouver duo – playing Rozz-Tox on June 11 and recording a Daytrotter.com session while in the Quad Cities – has built a following in western Canada and the U.S. west coast over the past seven years; but it has never played “out east,” in Brian Sumner’s words. I didn’t ask, but I think “out east” likely includes the Midwest.

“We’re the turtle in the race, where we just kind of slowly grow every year,” he said in a phone interview last week.

But I’ll Be There Tomorrow is bringing a lot of new ears to the group following a self-titled studio album and two collections of home recordings. “It’s just careful planning on our part,” Brian said of the positive attention the 2012 release has received. The brothers have conscientiously cultivated media relationships, he said, which paid off when the record came out in September.

No Depression’s review praised the duo’s “authentically rough and poignant homemade music” as “gritty and soulful alt-country that will rip out your heart and perhaps knock out a few teeth.”

The teeth-knocking happens right at the outset, with Brian’s brawny “Toughest Man in Prison Camp” distinguished by his hoarse, sandpaper-rough “la di da da” and “la di da di” summarizing the song’s portrait of damaged goods. The lyrics are at once boastful and pathetic – “I’m the funniest guy in the coffin” – and the elemental central guitar riff is wielded as a weapon. The effect is matter-of-fact self-awareness flirting with pride: “I was born with a heart of gold / But I melted it down.”

Choosing that track to open I’ll Be There Tomorrow seems an odd choice, given that Brian said its placement gave them pause. “We weren’t entirely sure how it [the new album] was going to be received, because the record before that was a little more relaxed,” he said. But, ultimately, “Toughest Man in Prison Camp” might have been “even more jarring if it were somewhere else on the album.” He added that the brothers didn’t sweat the reception too much: “We just hope there’s a bunch of us out there.”

“Toughest Man in Prison Camp” ends up more of a feint than a false start, and it is balanced on the back end by a raucous cover of Arthur Crudup’s “That’s All Right” – made famous by Elvis. But it remains an aggressive outlier on the album, an expression of Brian’s rock tendencies.

On his quieter songs – such as “Lay You in the Grave” and “The Lord Is My Protector” – Brian conjures Johnny Cash in his casual but purposeful phrasing and his throaty baritone. (The brothers – both in their early 30s – write separately and arrange together.)

Brother Bob’s singing is radically different – a slightly marble-mouthed, expressive whine. He sings Townes Van Zandt’s “Colorado Girl,” smartly paired with the frontier lament of his “Going Out West.”

While their songwriting styles are similar, Brian said, “I think he’s got a better melodic sense. ... I think lyrically we can both have the same effect on people, given the opportunity. He tends to maybe lean a little more toward ballads, and the sweet stuff, as they used to call it. In some cases, I like to do a little more of the rock, and be aggressive.”

Brian has a solo album due out later this year, and the Sumner Brothers plan to release a collection of covers culled from those sent monthly to fans who sign up for their e-mail newsletter. They plan to record their third studio album early next year, and Brian said the Sumners plan to continue the In the Garage series.

The turtle in the race, in other words, keeps moving steadily. “We’re lunch-box musicians,” he said. “We have to work at it.”

The Sumner Brothers will perform on Tuesday, June 11, at Rozz-Tox (2108 Third Avenue, Rock Island; RozzTox.com). The 8 p.m. show also features Lewis Knudsen & the Badits, and cover is $5.

For more information on the Sumner Brothers, visit TheSumnerBrothers.com.