San Francisco’s Sleepy Sun sent out a limited release of their debut full-length Embrace last summer, and local college radio stations kept it in heavy rotation for months. Kids liked it so much, the band parlayed the small following into a headlining gig at the Noise Pop festival, a deal with ATP Recordings, a slot at the label’s upcoming festival, and perhaps most importantly, an opportunity to slay at SXSW.
The impressive run in Austin made the re-release of Embrace a slightly bigger deal than most probably expected three months ago. It’s a heavy psychedelic rock record, with a few lighter songs that have the easy-livin’ atmosphere of Californian folk music. The two longest songs on the record, the opening “New Age” and “White Dove,” are multi-part affairs that go all-in on the delay pedal and guitar solos. Both call to mind another Northern California act, the incendiary Comets on Fire.
The big difference, though, is that Sleepy Sun isn’t having nearly as much fun. While the Comets often tried to see just how much it could pile onto a single song, Sleepy Sun takes a more earnest and nuanced approach. They counter the denser parts of their work – six-part jams, fuzzed-out guitar solos – with acoustic guitar and two-part harmonies. This opposition of styles occasionally plays out in a single song. “White Dove” burns brightly for seven minutes and then becomes a gentle sing-along; others, such as the not-quite-eponymous “Sleepy Son” and “Snow Goddess,” work up a crescendo, perhaps taking a page from ‘’90s-era instrumental rock bands. The shorter tracks, like “Red and Black,” which alternates between a single vocal line and guitar figure, seem like bridges between the longer songs rather than stand-alone efforts, and those longer songs are structured so that songwriting takes a backseat to musicianship.
That last trait is probably the reason Sleepy Sun faired so well at SXSW, but it’s also a backhanded compliment. The technical virtuosity on display on Embrace is something to appreciate, but the delicate balance between their austere and manic moments, the way they bridge hazy folk and psych so frequently, needs a little more refinement.