Palm Trees and Power Lines

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Sugarcult's 2001 debut, Start Static, had its share of filler, but the band that brought listeners "Stuck in America" and "Bouncing Off the Walls" certainly understood the power and marketability of shoutable choruses and giddy hooks played loud. Palm Trees and Power Lines, their sophomore major-label effort, might not be as direct, meaning they want to trade a bit of the bubblegum for some mall-punk songwriting cred. Its formula -- a clutch of upbeat rockers paced out with a few girlfriend-pleasing ballads -- is exactly the same, so the album will still please most of Sugarcult's Warped Tour constituency. But there's a sense that its hooks are more murky, that perhaps the bandmembers are aiming for some "seriousness" this time around. "Champagne" could be about the perils of celebrity overconsumption; its cleaned-up Nirvana vocals carry over to the cleansed So-Cal punk of "What You Say." "She's the Blade" mixes some minor chords into its tale of backstabbing romance, but is still guided by giddy pick slides and a head-bouncing singalong chorus. Even lead single "Memory" nixes the full-on anthemic antics of blink-182, instead co-opting the faceless, vaguely punk-influenced hard rock model of, say, American Hi-Fi. This is what makes Palm Trees a bit strange. It includes the melodrama of "Back to California," and consistently dials back the giddiness that defined Static. Luckily, whether through its thick, glossy production or the band's own desire to make the kids happy -- not make them think -- Sugarcult keep Palm Trees on a mostly enjoyable track. All groups deserve the chance to stretch their songwriting chops a bit, and Sugarcult do here, but they know their niche is in direct guitar chops and inclusionary lyrics. "All I want to do/Is lie in bed with you," they sing in "Worst December," and even if you can't figure out what the song's supposed to be -- is it punk? Is it pop? Is it Toad the Wet Sprocket covering Jawbreaker? -- it probably works just fine for the kids. In the end, after their dalliance with Being Serious, Sugarcult are thankfully more concerned with pleasing the crowd than making a statement.

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