whittled on the griddle of Japan

One of my favorite semi-obscure little bands is The Sugarplastic. They had a moment’s glory back in the ’90s with a single release on Geffen, which instantaneously garnered them 7,396 XTC comparisons. On that: the short version is that the band quite openly acknowledges their love of and influence by XTC – but that’s not the whole story: for example, Rose pointed out bits that sounded rather Pixies-like…and indeed, the Sugarplastic’s penchant for steady 8th-note rhythms, sometimes broken up with irregular meters, is one of two quirks I’ve noticed in nearly every one of their songs (the other is a love of little chromatic lines).

Anyway: they’re one of those bands whose members would seem to have day jobs that prevent them from focusing career energies on the band (to judge from his website, Ben Eshbach, the main songwriter, is quite the smart cookie), and so their release schedule has been quite irregular. Their last recording was released in 2005, and their website is infrequently updated.

Eshbach’s site also contains mp3s of early Sugarplastic songs that are somewhat difficult to find, as well as some of his own MIDI experiments (not terribly interesting to my ears). One of the better Sugarplastic tracks at that site (follow the link above to explore further) is “Motorola Rocketship,” which was released on the Japanese version of their third full-length release Resin in 2000. The arrangement, as is typical for the band, is fairly transparent, allowing the various parts to interweave without obscuring one another. The sort of early-sixties rock feel in the rhythm guitar and the occasional Beach Boys-like touch in the vocals is relatively unusual in their stuff: even though it’s still fairly subdued, this is pretty much as rocking as the band gets.

A much earlier song, “Ottawa Bonesaw,” is another story. Doing web searches on the band, I discovered that (unsurprisingly) Dana formerly from The Mystical Beast had already written about the Sugarplastic. While he finds much to like about their music, he notes that sometimes they can sound “a little cutesy-poo” and “white-bread.” My guess is, this isn’t one of his favorite tracks. For me, though, it’s maddeningly catchy – and I find myself thinking of it as a slightly off-kilter children’s song, so the cutesy stuff has a reason to exist: the rhymes based on people’s names, the funny voices, etc., make much better sense if you imagine this is music for kids. (My theory is that the song is loosely based on a French-Canadian children’s book whose title, in English, is “To You a Good Evening!” – the song title is a mangling of the French title “À Toi Bonsoir!”… Okay, probably not.) Regardless, I think more people should howl the title at the moon in the manner of the song’s closing.

The Sugarplastic “Motorola Rocketship” (Resin, Japanese edition, 2000)
The Sugarplastic “Ottawa Bonesaw” (Ottawa Bonesaw, 1993)

Postscript: Curiously, if you Google the titles of these two tracks, one link will lead you to an academic study on pattern recognition in music, whose authors used these two Sugarplastic songs to determine whether a particular band could be recognized by their software. Fans do funny things.

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