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D.C.’s punk, garage, and indie rockers haven’t given us many anthems as catchy-dumb as Sunwolf’s 2013 single “Push It,” which ought to rank along such hum-it-immediately earbugs as Unrest’s “Makeout Club” and The Points’ “Rock N Roll No Rules.” “Push It” and the rest of the band’s Angel Eyes EP were elemental and infectious, but they also contained an unexpected tension. With its fist-pump melody and bassist/singer Rob “Kalani” Tifford’s deliriously unhinged vocals, “Push It” was certainly rah-rah riotous—yet thanks to the power trio’s tight musicianship and intentional-or-not callbacks to the greats (Velvets, Flamin’ Groovies, Pussy Galore), it also came off as surprisingly, pleasantly, gratifyingly pro. “Push It,” somehow, felt both gestural and deliberate, raw and well-plotted—not a trick many bands pull off.
Follow the Dreamers, the band’s debut full-length, is at times mellower and craftier than the kick-out-the-jams material on Angel Eyes—a bit less Loaded, a bit more The Velvet Underground ‘69—but it aims with equal confidence for your pleasure centers. The band basically spells that out in “Red Song,” in which guitarist Tom Bunnell pleads, in an appropriately timeless-feeling chorus, “Nobody knows who wrote that song/ Where it’s coming from/ But you want to sing along.”
At several points on Follow the Dreamers, Sunwolf delivers the sort of hook that, as the band puts it, “cracks on the airwaves, gets into my head/ It goes on forever, even after you’re dead”—that is, the kind of cool-dude instant hummer that might populate a power-pop 45 or Nuggets comp. Campfire strummer “Big Feelings” has one of those simple choruses that feels huge because it says almost nothing, and that’s not the only place where the song does a lot with a little. An early guitar solo is licky, surfy, and perfectly timed; a second-half verse lets Tifford’s shimmying bass do the melodic lifting; and the last chorus has gang vocals, though it’s a small-sounding gang, the kind you might cram into a basement studio. Specifically, the basement of drummer (and local post-hardcore vet) Jerry Busher, whose production of Follow the Dreamers consistently exhibits a sensitive ear and good taste.
Like fellow local John Davis’ work in Title Tracks, Sunwolf often taps into an ancient and undying (and, yes, frequently overtugged) rock ’n’ roll through-line, the one connecting British Invasion groups and ’60s garage bands and East Village scenesters and Kiwi college rockers and the more pop-minded exponents of early punk—all of whom prized efficiency, immediateness, and some roughness, and who knew how to write a sing-along refrain. I’m not sure which is groovier in “Velvet,” on which Tifford and Bunnell share singing duties—the former’s thrumming verses, the latter’s wistful choruses, or the handclap bridge. (Of course there are handclaps. Respect.)
Follow the Dreamers also goes to some stranger places. “Memo 34” and “We Work” each consist of a verse or two followed by one extended, uber-catchy chorus—catchy enough that another band might have exploited it for a longer song, but which Sunwolf is content to leave behind after two minutes. The furious first half of “Contender” has a spoken vocal track layered over Bunnell’s sung one, a disorienting effect that builds to a boil before, halfway through, the chaos dissipates to reveal a plaintive ballad.
Other tracks take different avenues to burrow into your brain. You can hear some T. Rex and ESG in “Duke,” but it’s also its own beast, a minimalistic and slick refreshening of disco-punk tropes. “Heart (Goes Boom)” is a caveman’s love letter, a little bit Troggs, a little bit Calvin Johnson. And there may not be a better song on Follow the Dreamers than “Let It Out,” which exhibits nearly all of Sunwolf’s strengths—it’s a run-for-it-darling torch anthem that takes some smart formal zags, a head-nodder and a heart-tugger, a showcase for the band’s complementary commands of tension and release. “Let it out tonight, know it will be all right,” the band sings, and it’s not hard to share Sunwolf’s catharsis—and then appreciate that a band can be this diverting and immediate, yet still show its work.
Sunwolf plays a record release show on Jan. 23 at Songbyrd Music House & Record Cafe with Savak.