Headliners: The Sun
The Sun burned out not as a supernova, but with a slow, frustrated fizzle. At least they're ending with an album that's more bang than whimper.
The Columbus pop-rock band has been plagued by almost nonstop bad luck since signing with Warner Bros. in 2002. But drummer Sam Brown isn't interested in telling "yet another sob story about how a major label failed a band."
He and remaining bandmates Chris Burney and Brad Caulkins would rather turn the spotlight on Don't Let Your Baby Have All the Fun, the swansong they recorded with Spoon producer Mike McCarthy in 2007, released in limited capacity last summer and distributed online for free last week.
They'll have to put up with a few paragraphs of sob story first, though.
Burney seemed to be living a charmed life in the Sun's early days. After befriending Americana star and Columbus native Tim Easton as a lanky, bespectacled Ohio State dorm-dweller in the late '90s, Burney played upright bass for Easton on tour. He moved to California in 2000 to keep touring and recording with Easton.
By 2002, when Burney planned to start his own project with members of Columbus band Flotation Walls, he had accumulated quite a few friends in the music business.
That included Wilco, whose Jay Bennett invited Burney and his new band - now dubbed the Sun - to record with him at Wilco's Chicago rehearsal space. They emerged with an album's worth of material that immediately generated label interest.
When Burney's hopes of releasing his album on Chicago indie label Thrill Jockey didn't pan out, he decided to try the major label route instead, scheduling industry showcases at venues like Rick Rubin's house.
But the band Burney assembled to tour out to L.A. lost some members along the way, so he scrambled to put together a patchwork lineup for his showcase with Warner Bros. He called up Brown, a veteran of legendary local punk bands Gaunt and New Bomb Turks.
"Sam flew out and we basically rehearsed for like three hours," Burney said.
And with that, the Sun scored the major label deal so many bands crave despite countless horror stories of groups getting jerked around by their record execs. They wouldn't be immune to the major label machinations.
"Things went sour," Brown said, when their A&R guy rejected their first album and sent the group back to the drawing board.
The situation got worse in 2005 when, looking to make a gimmicky splash, Warner Bros. released the Sun's eventual debut, Blame It on the Youth, as a DVD with videos for each song. Sales were poor, promotion slowed to a trickle and although the album came out on vinyl, it never became a CD.
"It was a misstep on everybody's behalf," Brown said. "It was our fault for letting somebody drive the boat for us."
In the ensuing years, guitarist Bryan Arendt and bassist Brad Forsblum departed and the Sun severed ties with Warner Bros. The band seemed to have petered out until they got a call from McCarthy, an Austin-based producer who wanted to work on their next album.
"I was a big fan of their first record," McCarthy explained. "I was surprised it didn't become a huge, big, big deal."
McCarthy offered them discount recording time at his Austin studio, so the remaining nucleus of Burney, Brown and Caulkins traveled south. Working in a relaxed environment without deadlines or label pressure was invigorating for the musicians.
"It was the first time that the band felt natural to me," Brown said.
The brief renaissance wasn't enough to salvage the Sun, though. The back-breaking blow came when the band conflicted with its management over how to release the record.
McCarthy had connections at prestigious indie label Merge Records, and other companies were showing interest. Despite the Sun's wishes to sign with one of the suitors, their manager sat on the record, hoping to use an elaborate self-release strategy that had worked for other clients.
"It was just a total miscommunication," Burney said.
With no release in sight, the band made some low-budget copies of Don't Let Your Baby Have All the Fun and distributed them at their 2008 ComFest performance. But eventually they stopped holding out hope that the record would ever see official release. They moved on to other projects.
Caulkins relocated to Los Angeles, where he joined up-and-coming Afropop band Fool's Gold. Burney started a new band called Adult Fiction and plans to focus on his record label, Eastern Watts, with friends in St. Louis and New Orleans. Brown continues to tour with RJD2 and front his own power-pop project, You're So Bossy.
Last week, the band released the album for free through RockProper.com zzz, a Chicago-based online label, but it was more of a formality than anything else, a chance for longtime fans to hear the band's final concoction.
Burney and Brown aren't opposed to playing more Sun shows here and there, but Caulkins recently told Burney he isn't interested. So for now, this latest album marks the end of the Sun's terribly tumultuous history.
"The whole story is weird," Brown said, "but I think we got two good records out of it, at least."
Don't Let Your Baby Have All the Fun
It's a pity the Sun's sophomore LP got bogged down in even more red tape and communication breakdown than their debut, because Don't Let Your Baby Have All the Fun is their finest hour.
Producer Mike McCarthy coaxed some monstrous performances out of Burney, Brown and Caulkins - sometimes through psychological trickery, according to Burney. Whatever McCarthy did, it worked. If the Sun before felt like an Olympic basketball team with lots of talent but not enough cohesion, this is a band in the zone, working together with sure footing and shared vision.
The trio brought some strong songs to the table, a diverse set that ranges from the wound-up hip-shaker "Cold Hands (Clap Louder)" to cathartic wall-of-sound closer "In Perfect Time."
But what would have been a good album is made great by all the little things - the humble tambourine behind the sassy organ fills of "Watch Out," the creeping noise blasts behind "Cocaine and Tunes," the screaming string-bends and spoken asides in the midst of the otherwise orderly "The Goddess."
The album bears all the earmarks of close consideration and thoughtful arrangements. Yet it never sounds labored. This is pop music, fun and free and natural.
To download it for free, click to rockproper.com/the-sun.
When: 9 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 25
Where: The Summit, Campus
Sun guitarist/keyboardist/resident badass Brad Caulkins skipped town for L.A. many months ago. One of the bands he joined on the West Coast, Fool's Gold, has been blowing up recently, and they'll be in Columbus for Thanksgiving Eve.
The band's faithful reading of Afropop is only barely affected by the members' indie-rock pedigree; anyone looking for joyous brass blasts and rhythmic release should lend this band their ear.
You're So Bossy, the pristine power-pop band fronted by Sun drummer Sam Brown, will perform as well.