Varnaline can't be pigeonholed into any too-convenient category. True, you can guess leader Anders Parker's loves before they're confirmed by his record label bio. There are unabashed echoes everywhere of Neil Young (the slower, quieter, spookier mid-'70s version, circa "Cortez the Killer" and "The Campaigner"), with much lesser but detectable hints of Fables of the Reconstruction and Lifes Rich Pageant R.E.M., and bits of old, rustic country and non-urban blues and folk. But he fuses all of this together with care, and crowns it with a plaintive but strong, sure voice. This is brisk, baby. And this is Parker's finest hour. The purists go for 1996's debut Man of Sin and the stopgap A Shot and a Beer EP, since both were cheaply recorded, instant polaroids of Parker in the studio alone, naked, unadorned, and piercing. But 1997's Varnaline and this LP especially are preferable, both made by a real band instead, with Jud Ehrbar on drums (who also plays with Parker in Space Needle) and brother John Parker on bass. Sweet Life really shows the creative benefit of band interaction, and in further contrast to the lo-fi solo approach, it's immaculately, lushly produced by John Agnello. So the group's scope widens without dimming the main Parker's immediacy. The title track even cranks up a dense, thick, gripping power -- too bad they stuck it at the end. What precedes it is moderate to slow tempos that never drag (less than some slowcore bands), as a distinct, twinkling beauty pulses in "Tonight" (a gem) and the typically Young-ified "Gulf of Mexico" and "Northern Lights." The country hints are sweet instead of hokey, a sweet, submissive burble somewhere between George Jones and Gram Parsons, melded into folk-pop and roots rock that brings to mind Dylan and the Band. (Sweet Life was recorded in the Catskills, not that far from the Band's old Woodstock base.) Yet for all the rootsy antecedents, there's no feeling of nostalgia here. The cascading tones, the shimmering textures, and sweeping, pretty guitars make this LP a modern pleasure, a thoroughly '90s sound. Sweet Life is a respite from the molds and a patient prize.
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AllMusic Review by Jack Rabid