In the mid-90s I happened upon a used copy of a disc by a Tucson-based band called Friends of Dean Martinez in my favorite CD store. It was The Shadow of Your Smile, a record of instrumental lounge jazz in a dry, dusty Southwestern style. I was instantly smitten with this record and its followup Retrograde, both of which had lots of twangy, reverb-laden electric guitar and smooth pedal steel. The Friends led me to fellow Tucson bands Calexico and Giant Sand, whose members played in various iterations of Friends over the years.
Now comes a Brooklyn quartet calling themselves SUSS, and they’re taking that kind of sound farther and deeper. I was drawn to SUSS when I discoveed their previous eleases on a streaming service earlier this year, and I’m thrilled with Promise. This is their third release in fairly rapid succession on Northern Spy Records following the critically acclaimed Ghost Box (2018) and High Line (2019). Members Jonathan Gregg, Gary Leib, Bob Holmes, and Pat Irwin made this record during the first wave of the coronavirus pandemic in New York earlier this year, in an attempt to “come to grips with concepts such as ‘promise’ and ‘hope’ and what they could still mean in this day and age,” as the one-sheet says.
What is this music? Lots of descriptors crop up: Ambient country. Ambient Americana. Sonic landscape. SUSS calls it pastoral psychedelicism. It definitely draws on elements of minimalism. It’s slow music. I call it beautiful, calming, comforting. With pedal steel, baritone guitar, ebow, harmonium, synths, loops and more, they conjure up the desert landscapes I’ve loved all my life.
It works just as well as soundtrack to an entirely different, more urban landscape, as this hauntingly beautiful video for the track “Winter Light” demonstrates.
Other tracks in this vein include “Drift,” with the ebow drawing out a long, languid series of notes over multiple layers of drone from pedal steel and synths; the ultra-minimalist “Home,” a sketchy hint of a melody on baritone guitar over a shimmering soundscape; the sublime “Echo Lake” which was the first single, with looped pedal steel figuring prominently; “Mission” with its dreamlike repetition of four-note arpegiatted chords on the baritone guitar; and the self-explanatory “Nightlight,” a six-minute dreamscape. The opener “Midnight” is a bit more haunting than these, with pedal steel and melodica winding slowly around the central synth drone and acoustic guitar chords; and “No Man’s Land” is all edgy drones, including a distorted electric guitar and a loope of a manically sawed fiddle.
If you need a way to wind down at the end of the day, you could surely do worse than SUSS’s Promise. It’s perfect background music any time, and its meditative vibe also rewards close attention.
(Northern Spy, 2020)