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The Graham Weekly Album Review #1534

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Sunfold: Toy Tugboats
by George Graham

(Terpsikhore Records As broadcast on WVIA-FM 8/13/2008)

Perhaps it's the retro trend in the music and media world, perhaps it's the easier access that artists have to issuing a recording, with the ability to self-produce and virtually self release music, but for whatever reason, there seems to be a wealth of talented young artists who draw on the rock styles that we Baby Boomers would relate to. This week we have another worthwhile example. It's the debut of a band called Sunfold, with a CD named Toy Tugboats.

Like many of these neo-retro bands, Sunfold is primarily the work of one young composer performer who plunges into the process, with the single-mindedness and energy that comes with youth. Like Brian Scary of the Shredding Tears, and Kenny Choi of Wolftron and Daphne Loves Derby, whom we reviewed in this series, Sunfold's leader Kenny Florence is of an age where the kind of music he makes might even pre-date the pop sounds his parents grew up on. The record company bio coyly states that Florence is not yet of legal age to buy beer. But the Raleigh, North Carolina area composer, multi-instrumentalist and vocalist draws on an interesting mix that is clearly influenced by the art rock of groups like Yes, as well as some jazzy swing, and a bit of folkiness and roots-rock, in a batch of tunes that is interesting musically and somewhat cryptic lyrically. It's definitely not an album that gets caught in any stylistic rut.

The Sunfold band had its start in 2002, and is also known as The Annuals, depending on whether they are doing the music of Florence or Adam Baker, who is the chief composer for the Annuals. Florence also works as in-house engineer at the recording studio run by the band's independent label Terpsikhore Records. He is also involved with a music theory school in the North Carolina Triangle area called the Tone Zone, and is working on co-writing a music theory textbook. And with all the musical filigree in Sunfold's CD, that's not surprising. But it's all very approachable, with the melodic pop side of the art rock equation emphasized.

In addition, to Florence who is listed as playing 12 different instruments in the CD's credits, Adam Baker of the Annuals is heard on several more instruments, along with bassist Mike Robinson, and guitarist Zach Oden. Also appearing on the CD are drummer Nick Redford, and keyboardist Anna Spence. In this recording, with its domination by Florence, one wonders how much the others contribute. But the four-piece band does tour and perform, morphing back and forth between the Annuals and Sunfold.

The material is well-written and musically quite substantial. Though there is art-rock influence, the emphasis is not on instrumental soloing. The musicianship and arranging is tasteful, but they don't quite get the jazz right.

The CD opens with one of its strongest pieces, Oregon, which shows the art rock influence of Florence, with its many layers, waltz rhythm, appealing high vocals, and kitchen-sink approach to instrumentation. <<>>

Also in the progressive rock mode is Shrinking the Sphere, reminiscent of early Genesis with a bit more of a rock edge. <<>>

The jazzy side of Mr. Florence and Sunfold comes out on a piece called Gnosis. It's a well-written and interesting tune in a jazzy waltz time. But speaking as a jazz fan, I think it just doesn't swing well. <<>> But when the track executes a sudden left turn into another progressive rock sequence, it takes off. <<>>

Yet another unexpected facet of Florence and the band is explored on a song called Shapeshifter. You would expect art rock with a title like that, but the band takes off a pleasant trip down home in the North Carolina hills on this one. <<>>

Also showing the jazz influence of the band is a piece called To Wake the Eye, which combines a quiet musical setting with the kind of metaphysical lyrics more at home in an art rock opus. <<>>

Another interesting little detour is Gorgeé de Rubis, which throws in some electronic pop influence. <<>>

The CD's showpiece track is Sara the American Winter a wonderful amalgam of prog-rock, Sixties pop revival, and a lyrical phrase lifted from a 1950s folk song from Pete Seeger. <<>>

The CD ends with another of its jazzy tunes Holding the Charm. The drumless, mostly acoustic setting works well for the song that still has a lot of musical twists and turns. <<>>

Toy Tugboats the debut CD by Sunfold, the North Carolina band led by the college-aged Kenny Florence, spans an uncommonly wide range from progressive rock to roots rock to jazzy ballads. Florence is plainly best at the prog-rock, which he has absorbed as if he grew up on a diet of Yes and Genesis, balancing the genre's musical complexity with a good helping of tuneful retro pop. All the material is well-written and has enough layers and ambiguity that it provides plenty of opportunity to discover new stuff each time you listen.

For sound quality, we'll give the CD about a B. The mix is good, the clarity is decent, but like 90% of CDs out there, the sound is too compressed. That kills the dynamics that music like this should have.

To the ranks of boy-wonder rock symphonists from Brian Wilson to Kenny Choi, we can add Kenny Florence. Sunfold's CD Toy Tugboats is an impressive release that can appeal to several generations.

(c) Copyright 2008 George D. Graham. All rights reseved.
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