Imagine if Mumford and Sons was dark. And I mean really dark. Like, encompasses your whole soul and makes you want to have rituals in a forest under the light of the full moon. That’s what The Dead South feels like.
“Sugar & Joy” is the bluegrass group’s fourth album and where we really feel the quartet hits its stride. It’s an entire album reminiscent of their hit “In Hell I’ll Be In Good Company,” but it doesn’t feel drawn out or overdone. In fact, the production and lyrical quality is so tight that just listening to it takes up all of your attention.
Usually, when listening to a new album, I’ll multitask. Cook, clean, knit, you name it. But I couldn’t do that with this one. My foot was tapping the whole time. I felt like I needed to be drinking moonshine and dancing in a barn with a piece of straw between my teeth.
The fact is, I love bluegrass music. I have said many times that there is not a single song that wouldn’t be better with a banjo or mandolin. This record proves my point over and over. You don’t even notice that the usual bluegrass fiddle is nonexistent.
Bluegrass isn’t always good. Sometimes it feels too cliche. Like, I get it, you’re a coal miner and you drink. And while The Dead South sings about both of those things, it’s with a kind of sarcastic overtone that actually makes you believe they’re being authentic.
The Dead South brings a sinister nature to their music that other bluegrass albums do not. The music is high-energy and high-reward, but it also makes you look over your shoulder and check twice when you see a shadow.
Even when the record starts to feel less sinister and warmer in “Snake Man, Pt. 1,” you only get the nicety for about a minute before the minor chords come in and you remember who you’re listening to. A part one always has to have a part two, right?
Some of the songs on “Sugar & Joy” have lyrics that could be on a Tyler Childers album, like “Heaven in a Wheelbarrow” and “Alabama People.” For a bunch of guys from
Saskatchewan, they really do get the Southern Gothic vibe that encircles bluegrass.
The honky-tonk tracks help keep the al- bum from feeling like an ode to darkness. This is where you emerge from the black night of the forest, go and get drunk with your friends in the safety of warm barn lights. It’s where I started adding songs to my hillbilly playlist rather than my spooky playlist.
“Spaghetti” merges the dancing with the darkness while also making you wonder who the hell is coming up with these song titles. We get a fitting, if not slightly abrupt, ending with “Distance Oneself,” proving that instrumentals are essential and possibly the most important part of making this album what it is.