My musical taste was molded as much by my music-loving elder siblings as it was by Chicago radio station WXRT. The first time I heard most of the bands I love, it was on WXRT. That was especially true in the late 80s and early 90s when WXRT was at its best, wholeheartedly embracing the British alternative music that became my reason for being.
In the meantime, WXRT has stagnated a bit, aging with their listeners and moving away from anything too challenging to focus on inoffensive AOR, you know, like OAR. WXRT never played Pulp. They never played the Libertines. They didn’t even start playing Muse until 2012 or so, once they put out a single mellow enough to fit in.
In the last few years, though, they’ve actually gotten a little better. I first heard Tame Impala on WXRT. Same for Courtney Barnett. Recently, they pricked up my ears by playing the title track from Sulk’s second album, No Illusions. The jangling, chorus-pedal-laden guitars reminded me of pre-Britpop guitar-driven indie bands like the House of Love or James, and of a time when WXRT was at their best. The album as a whole sounds straight out of that era.
Wikipedia describes Sulk as a Psychedelic Rock/Shoegaze band, though I detect not a whole lot of either genre in their sound. Other than a smidge of sitar at the beginning of “The Only Faith is Love,” nothing strikes me as particularly psychedelic. And though Sulk are definitely fond of their effects pedals, nothing rises anywhere near the layered cacophony of Shoegaze auteurs My Bloody Valentine or Ride.
And none of that is to say that Sulk is bad, simply not necessarily as advertised on Wikipedia. The aforementioned “The Only Faith is Love” is the track that immediately jumped out at me. Verses and chorus each have their own well-crafted hooks that keep on grabbing throughout the song. You almost expect there to be some kind of psychedelic breakdown right around the bridge, but other than guitars mildly mimicking that opening sitar, you’re just going to have to settle for solid, British indie.
“Drifting” opens with another ringing, chorus-effected guitar riff that instantly reminds me of pre-debut album Stone Roses single, “Sally Cinnamon.” It doesn’t hurt that lead singer Jon Sutcliffe sounds an awful lot like Ian Brown. This album shares the early Roses’ unformed, nebulous quality – a band waiting for a scene to form about them. I’m certainly not hearing anything new out there that sounds anything like Sulk. It kind of breaks my heart that solid, British indie guitar rock is such a rarity today.
It’s that amorphous quality, that feeling of a band that is about to find itself but isn’t there just yet, that keeps Sulk in merely “like” range. The elements are there but the needle can’t quite make it up to “love” on the gauge. This is best evidenced by the mid-tempo numbers like “One Day” and “Queen Supreme” which neither offend nor excite.
No Illusions is Sulk’s second album. I’ve never heard the first and decided to avoid checking it out so it wouldn’t color my impression of this album. If No Illusions was the debut, I’d be excited to hear what was in store. Knowing it’s a sophomore effort, I’m a little more dubious about that fledgling feeling. If they were a band on the cusp of finding their niche, blossoming into greatness, moving the needle over the “love,” they should sound a little more… I don’t know… on their way there, maybe? They’re really not bad at all, in fact compared to most current music, they’re pretty damn good. I just wish they were great.