There is an old homily which quite wisely states that if something is operating properly, it might be considered imprudent to attempt a repair.
Or, in a slightly less circuitous manner of speaking, if it ain't broke, don't fix it.
For well over a decade, the Sundresses have been anything but broken. Brad Schnittger, Jeremy Springer and Makenzie Place have been churning out a visceral pretzel logic version of the Blues with elements of manic Swing, hot foot Jazz, brutal Punk and blistering Indie Rock, heated to the temperature of molten rock and detonated over unsuspecting audiences with an animalistic ferocity. A formula like that is both tremulously volatile and erratically perfect. Why would anyone feel the need to take a wrench to it?
Needed or not, a-wrenching they have gone; for the first time in The Sundresses' long history, the tight-knit trio has added a new full fledged member with the hiring of former Dukes Are Dead drummer Dave Reid. The new lineup was unveiled on July 19 for the band's appearance at the MidPoint Indie Summer Series on Fountain Square, and then again a week later when The Sundresses tore through a set at the Mad Love for Mad Anthony benefit at the Southgate House Revival.
Rabid fans and casual observers may have differing opinions on how Reid's addition will impact the Sundresses going forward, but one thing is certain; this was anything but a routine lineup decision. Bringing in a permanent drummer changes the group dynamic, eliminates one of the band's most popular and unique live features and may actually set the stage for broader success.
After 13 hard fought calendars, the Sundresses have recorded sporadically — a few EPs, a split with Dylan Ewing's 4192, a pair of brilliant studio documents (2003's The Only Tourist in Town, 2008's Barkinghaus) and Off, their scalding and ingeniously marketed 2010 live album — and toured relentlessly, without a great deal of forward progress being notched. The trio has always generated a good deal of extremely positive press, and their string of five trips to Austin for South by Southwest has to stand as some kind of local record.
My personal obsession with the Sundresses began at their first SXSW appearance in 2004, which coincided with my first trip to Austin for the festival. As it turned out, the band's gig at the Blender Balcony was only the ninth out-of-town show in their two-year history, and I felt as though I had just witnessed the cosmic birth of a great musical entity. I still feel that way. I drank more than a dipperful of The Sundresses' Kool-Aid that night, and I've been feverishly blathering on about them ever since to anyone who will listen.
For whatever reasons, the brass ring of label offers and more tangible measures of success have eluded The Sundresses. At the same time, the trio has remained committed to the cause and continued to pursue their singular vision with an almost psychotic tenacity and zealous passion. And their focused determination may have made it difficult for those of us who love them unconditionally to admit that there was indeed a fundamental issue that may have been blocking their path.
From the very start, Brad and Jeremy envisioned and executed one of their most cherished gimmicks, namely their patented guitar/drum switch; at their 2005 SXSW show, Jeremy informed the audience, "You were supposed to close your eyes..." It has long been an admittedly fabulous element of their live presentation, but it may have been so entertainingly original that it became a detriment.
The basic issue may be that Brad plays drums with the subtlety and invention of a studied and seasoned beatkeeper and Jeremy plays with the brute force of a blacksmith hammering on an anvil. Both approaches to playing the drums have legitimate advantages and both clearly have a role in shaping the diverse sonic identity that the trio has been trying to define since forming The Sundresses in 2002.
Although it may never have been perceived as a problem, the difficulty with rotating drummers is that Makenzie — who learned how to play bass in order to be a part of the band — has had to adjust her groove based on those two very distinct drum styles. In essence, the Sundresses' rhythm section has never really had an opportunity to build a discernible foundation.
With Dave behind the kit, that opportunity becomes a reality.
Based on the Sundresses' roaring set at the Mad Anthony benefit on July 26, the band's newly established rhythm section has already started paying dividends. Makenzie is now locked into a single percussionist and she and Dave collectively control the band's tempo. Dave has the latitude to incorporate Jeremy's power and Brad's nuance into his singular drum repertoire and Makenzie is learning the joy of shifting gears without changing cars.
Relying on primarily new and largely unrecorded material, The Sundresses blazed through an all-too-brief ten song set with a rejuvenated energy that smacked of their early days. Opening with the swinging funky Blues of the brand new "Banker's Blues" and the loping howl of the equally fresh "Whisper Touch," the quartet bounced megawatt riffs through every body and against every conceivable surface in the Revival's sanctuary. They slowed down a shade for a spin through Hank Williams' "Ramblin' Man," and Jeremy's quick documentary on the size of MA guitarist Ringo Jones' manhood before tearing into another relatively new track, "Zap a Deux," but it was all good in the hood regardless of speed or sonic profile. Finishing up with longtime faves "Hey! Hey! Bang! Bang!" and the propulsively jumping "Larry Nixon," the Sundresses gave both a glimpse at the sound of their much-anticipated third studio outing, hopefully coming out before the end of the year, and the direction they'll be taking as a quartet.
Perhaps one of the more interesting side effects from The Sundresses' expansion is the fact that Jeremy and Brad are now playing guitar together, which means their distinct stylistic differences are blending and cross-pollinating rather than occupying discernibly different spaces within the set. As they become more acclimated to this arrangement, and as Makenzie and Dave fully tune up the engine they've just rebuilt, it's bound to have an incredible impact on the songs they start writing. As it stands, the songs The Sundresses have already written sound magnificent coming from the newly minted quartet, proving once again that even the best can get better