The latest recording from ambient country pioneers SUSS takes them out of their Brooklyn environs on a road trip to a part of the country that fully mirrors their sound. After putting out three albums in three years, culminating in 2020’s masterful Promise, they headed out for a road trip – whether actual or a road trip of the mind isn’t clear, but with creative geniuses like the guys in SUSS, what’s it matter? Either way, what better place to go than the last section of historic U.S. Route 66, the stretch of road between Albuquerque, New Mexico, and Los Angeles – the Purple Heart Highway.
SUSS is the perfect band to conjur the music of this magical road trip. As they say in the liner notes:
On that last leg of the great American journey, you feel the melancholy, the strain, and the high you get from being awake too long. It’s the endless horizon, the sodium arc lights of a truck stop, the slap of windshield wipers, the all-night talk radio, the rumble of the tires on the road, and the smell of burnt coffee before the first light of dawn.
SUSS is Bob Holmes on baritone and acoustic guitars, mandolin, harmonica and violin; Pat Irwin on electric guitars, eBow, National resonator guitar, melodica, harmonium and other keyboards; Jonathan Gregg on Pedal Steel and Dobro; and Gary Leib on keyboards, synthesizers, looping and filmmaking. (Leib died only days after they finished this recording.)
The Night Suite EP, which was dropped with no warning in late October, has five tracks, each named for a town on that route: Gallup, New Mexico; Flagstaff, Ash Fork, and Kingman, Arizona; and Needles, California. It’s perfect late-night listening, whether you’re on the road or not. It’s music that evokes a particular landscape. The desert Southwest of the United States. The gritty towns that you pass through late at night on your way from somewhere to somewhere else. From my stream of consciousness impressions as the music played:
- Gallup, New Mexico. The highway is a a multilayered landscape that looms up from the edge of your headlights’ field, and more textures reluctantly emerge from it. Languid, upward arpeggiated baritone guitar notes in groups of two on a major third; scratchy, burbling noises barely at the edge of perception; a haunting hint of a melody on pedal steel. The drone looms louder, like the hum of a malfunctioning light fixture at an all-night gas station or truck stop, as you pull in, and it slowly fades.
- Flagstaff, Arizona. As you move on, layers of cool tones fade up, and as they assume their place at the base of the soundscape, a pedal steel lays chords over the top, and one then two keyboards experiment with notes that tentatively rise and fall; an acoustic guitar strums an occasional chord change. The pedal steel is every tractor trailer rig that looms up in the night, lumbers by you in the next lane, and fade away into your rearview mirror.
- Ash Fork, Arizona. Layers of drone shiver and shimmer, a pedal steel tumbleweeds across your line of sight, something like a birdsong tries to get your attention from far away, discordant notes intrude from vaguely industrial landscapes as you pass, and that painful memory you’ve been trying to forget begins to loudly demand your attention. Your heart sinks two steps at a time, and you wonder how far down you’ll go this time.
- Kingman, Arizona. The ghostly puffing of forgotten steam engines tickles your tympanum, oddly in rhythm with the passing power poles. The sun is up, long shadows send their fingers across the road, the hint of an upbeat melody plays hide and seek with your memories, and you’re somehow a bit more optimistic as the road passes and passes and passes beneath your wheels.
- Needles, California. The heat waves shimmer off the highway, the light from the high sun suffuses the landscape like an overexposed Polaroid. Memories of every chord you’ve ever strummed on an acoustic guitar comfort you as you sail on toward your destination.
SUSS has created an atmospheric, noirish video to go with each of these tracks, and I wish I could embed all of them here, but I have to choose. Here’s my current favorite, “Flagstaff,” and you can see the rest at their YouTube channel.
I like the “Flagstaff” video because it includes some (albeit fleeting and impressionistic) imagery of band members playing in a live setting.
It’s been far too long since I’ve been on a road trip to the Southwest. I hope it won’t be too much longer before I can go again. In the meantime, as I unwind with a good science fiction book late at night, Night Suite is on endless repeat.
(Northern Spy Records, 2021)