Review: Kill Henry Sugar – Hot Messiah

Originally published in American Songwriter March 2, 2010

Kill Henry Sugar has never been fond of genres. The New York City duo just isn’t easily classified.

To call Erik Della Penna and Dean Sharenow a folk act is reductive and off-the-mark, as their songs do not worship at the altar of early Bob Dylan or, even moreso, at those of Woody Guthrie or Pete Seeger. (Full disclosure: the pair has legitimate folk credentials, having worked with, among others, Joan Baez.) But the trappings of folk – the acoustic guitar, the historical ballad, the boxcar lamentations about the good ol’ days – are never too far removed from the band’s repertoire.

On Hot Messiah, the group’s sixth record, Kill Henry Sugar continues to evade those who might seek to categorize them. The 12-track album is darker, both musically and lyrically, than its predecessor, 2007’s Swing Back And Down, and also flirts more with the blues. But it is not a blues record, just as past efforts were not entirely folk records. There are songs with electric guitar, songs with acoustic guitar and songs with no guitar at all. Though the music sometimes concerns itself with history and the ramifications of using history as a source of inspiration, the music is thoroughly modern, sometimes even self-referential and post-modern. This is a collection of spare, stirring and emotive numbers that are raw and beautiful, like unpolished gems freshly pulled from the soil beneath your feet.

The record begins with “Yankee Talk,” one of the finest album-openers you’ll hear this year, a song whose lyrics place Della Penna and Sharenow among the “volk” whose American molds of music and story-telling they seem so fond of borrowing from but not completely embracing.

“Well, we descended from some European trash/ though we would not assimilate into the children of the corn/ The custom agent’s only taking cash /‘cause he knows we’ll all be dying in the class that we were born,” Della Penna sings, his voice walking the line between balladry and theatricality. “Had we been wronged, had we been broke/by helping hands, had we been choked/ It’s that way for Dean and me, Yankee talk with many shades of meaning.”

The song — in which Della Penna, conscious of class distinctions and the castes they create, bluntly notes “you can hire half the working class to kill the other half” — gradually unfurls, with both Della Penna’s jazzy acoustic guitar and Sharenow’s fluid percussion picking up their pace and becoming more aggressive as the song progresses. By the time the song’s four-minute-and-change running time runs out, you wish they just kept rumbling for a few more verses.

Elsewhere, the smallest detail can leave behind the deepest impression. In the transfixing “Bewildered,” it’s not Della Penna’s laundry list of modern-day inconveniences – crazy drivers, people who spit on the sidewalk, scientific advances – that claws its way into your memory, but the backing of two guitars, one reverbed, one almost as trebly as a zither, which subtly dose out single notes to accent Della Penna’s quietly shuffling acoustic guitar. In the folksy “Against The Stars,” the tale of one man’s fateful quest to become a cop, the thing that sticks with you is Della Penna and Sharenow’s fragile harmonies and the occasional interjection of a lonely banjo.

That’s not to say the record lacks big moments. The bluesy “Long Ago” is a barnburner, complete with dirgy guitars and harmonica, “Time Is Just A Piece of Paper” is a jazz nugget for piano and brushed snare and hi-hat, and “Runs In The Family” and “Age of Man” border on pop of the inviting variety, with contributions from electric guitar, bouncy bass, backing vocals and the careful picking of a banjo or acoustic guitar.

Those who love Kill Henry Sugar when their eyes are fixed on the days before them will appreciate “Johnny Appleseed,” a historical-vignette that follows in the footsteps of Boss Tweed and “Tammany Hall” from Swing Back And Down. “London Town,” which Della Penna and Sharenow sing beautifully a capella, is a fatalistic historical view of the life-cycles of a single city. And that says nothing of the lyrics for “Long Ago,” which seem to concern themselves with the absurdity of applying historical models – science driven by religious dogma, laws against blasphemy — to modern life. And just how much of modern life is composed of such histories?

Blues from somewhere near the Mississippi Delta float to the surface on the sparsely arranged and incredibly catchy “First Born Son” and, just three minutes later, Della Penna and Sharenow are pounding the floorboards, offering up “Spinning World,” whose floor-toms thump and thud and whose rollicking electric-blues guitar, fleshed out during bridges by the high wail of a what could be a Farfisa organ, falls somewhere between rhythm-and-blues and early rock.

The record ends not with a bang but a whimper, an elegiac weeper titled “Within My Lifetime.”

“I feel a strange wind blowin’/ I’m under threatening skies/ I hope the spell gets broken/ Within my lifetime,” Della Penna sings, broken-hearted over a melancholy verse on piano. “I started out so humble/ And I saw the garden grow/ I saw an empire crumble/ Within my lifetime.”

“I’m at the new location/ The old one slipped away,” he continues, with Sharenow now offering almost whispered harmony. “Can I rise above my station/ Within my lifetime?”

It’s a fitting close to an eclectic, even brilliant, album, another unexpected gem from a pair of musicians who, musically speaking, have carefully nurtured the art of walking between the raindrops.

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