The tumult of guitars and drums that kick off "Waves," one of the advance singles from SUSTO's excellent new LP & I'm Fine Today, is in many ways a clarion call toward the band's bigger, bolder, more ambitious present. Gone is the humble, even ramshackle acoustic alt-country of the group's debut, a record which often felt like a Justin Osborne solo project. In its place is a full-band painting with purposeful aims.
There's a ton going on in "Waves" — guttural bass riff and prog-gy keyboard lines slide in and out as competing grungy rhythms, and sprightly melodic lead guitar parts vie for anthemic supremacy. The song itself seems to have higher and headier goals, with a universal message ("Why so much trouble/ When we live in such a remarkable place?" the chorus asks with gusto) even as the lyrics bring aching religious doubt, which is the group's signature theme.
To say that's the whole story of & I'm Fine Today, though, is to miss some of the more conservative moments of continuity. Yes, there is the sumptuous lead-off track "Far Out Feeling," a track that lumbers with psychedelic wonder before erupting into cinematic string and horns with grandeur that practically shouts the band's bigger budget and upwardly mobile ambition. Later, on "Mountain Top," the group scales a My Morning Jacket-sized crescendo that eventually turns in on itself with a dance-rock stomp and Osborne's vocals going past ragged into a full-on shred. Both songs are tour-de-force successes, demonstrating what happens when CPMA Producer of the Year Wolfgang Zimmerman gets to spend quality time fleshing out a self-consciously "big" record.
And yet, the more you listen to & I'm Fine Today, the more the record reveals itself to be a far more apt companion to the group's 2014 self-titled debut than the shiny arrangements and crackling, well-integrated band contributions suggest. After all, hook-driven country rock with introspective and incisive lyricism is still the band's bread and butter, and cuts like the chemical dependency meditation "Hard Drugs" or the off-the-cuff strum-along "Mystery Man" smack of that early-Wilco vibe that wouldn't have sounded out of place on that earlier effort.
Part of what makes the original SUSTO batch of songs so memorable is the earworm one-liners that fans wear like badges of honor (note the "Acid Boys" shirts that quickly proved popular, or the way fans sing in unison the choruses from "Dream Girls" or "Friends, Lovers, Ex-Lovers: Whatever"). That lives on as well, from the 2016 SceneSC sampler contribution "Cosmic Cowboy" ("I'm a Southern man, but I'm an atheist/ A Puddin' Swamp kid with tattoo fists/ I'm always in the middle and never on top/ I'm a cosmic cowboy") to the aforementioned "Waves," which seems destined to bridge the divide between even the most jaded hipster and the frattiest bro. Any temptation to bill this as a reinvention, or even a large-scale evolution, feels like it's missing the boat a bit.
Instead, the record deftly balances the pull of the bigger and more sonically adventurous impulses with the core of what made SUSTO great to begin with, allowing a certain kind of conservative impulse to carry them through in a way that is itself surprising but ultimately welcomed.
Don't get me wrong, this record is primed to land SUSTO on the national scene as they tour around with the likes of the Lumineers (March 2017). But it's also somehow managed to keep a semblance of the little-Charleston-band-that-could vibe alive, even if nearly every single second here feels more assured and ready for the big stage than their debut.
And "Jah Werx" is the odd little reverie of a closing tune that rides a loop-like progression and spacey keyboard parts as Osborne sings the song title together with the album title like a rebellious prayer. When it concludes, there's an odd sense of comfort, as if regardless of the whims of the marketplace and random stroke of good luck it takes to break through commercially, SUSTO made just the right album to do just that.