Spine Hits is stuffed with melodic monster jams whose teeth have been sanded down, ready for radio. For a moment, Sleepy Sun even makes you feel like you’re in an alternate world where rock might still be played with static – a land where grain is a-plenty and a band of boys from Northern California can tell their moms to tune in at nine to hear their new single on the airwaves for the first time. But alas, the world is not so, and Spine Hits has to sit uncomfortably in a diasporic and virtual music scene that requires a studied search, when you know it’d rather be playing outside with whatever neighborhood kids it encountered.
For all its attempts at pure badass rockery, a close ear picks up lyrics and phrases that read as little more than poppy nonsense – PG psychedelia like “come down from your love crash” (Dave Matthews?) and “valley of jazz.” Mind-fucking doesn’t seem like something Sleepy Sun has in its priorities list. They may talk about dragging corpses and wild forces, but their pumped-up jams are more about celebrating those rays of life’s light than getting lost in the speckled shadows.
Their song about death and stuff, “Martyr’s Mantra,” really isn’t about death at all. The threat, finality, and total reality of the end come nowhere near this track – just the smoke-and-mirrors, vague-notion, ain’t-I-deep suggestion of it. “Martyr’s Mantra” sounds like Queens of the Stone Age Lite (appropriate, since QotSA alumnus Dave Catching recorded the album) combined with the navigation system from Barbarella’s space ship and a few “Sympathy for the Devil” shouts during the drum breakdown.
The quiet and calm “Boat Trip” is prime for either pina colada-sipping or afternoon nap-taking, and it, as well as the other slow jams on Spine Hits, are a nice contrast to the cocky rock-out rhythms of most of the record. More than the rhythm, really, it’s lead singer Bret Constantino’s sun-fried seventies vocals, met with a dose of Alice in Chains-style polished roughness, that give off the tough-guy ‘tude. But those badass shoes may be a bit big for Sleepy Sun, and the effort is more akin to watching an endearing punk practicing the pinched lip in a mirror, adding that signature Sleepy Sun smile into even the most sky-high, emotive moments.
That self-conscious, somewhat tongue-in-cheek cool breaks down somewhere around the intro of “Yellow End,” revealing a girlish, breathy and soft side to Constantino’s voice. “Yellow End” has the two sides meet for a great track that draws some real drama out of the contrast. A bad boy with a heart of gold? Sigh-worthy as-is, but add in the drifter persona that kicks in for the second half of the road-torn “Still Breathing” — there’s even a harmonica! — and Constantino’s living the dream.
Spine Hits ends on a high note, with the last three songs hitting close to the heart while keeping up that high-school-in-the-early-70s sense of fun – particularly in the sometimes-clappy, sometimes-sad “Deep War,” a perfect summer song for days when it’s almost too hot to move (or for right after that girl in the booty shorts at the popsicle stand just told you to fuck off). Ripe for radio play it may never see, Spine Hits is a neutral but enjoyable record for the impending days of sun and so-what.