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Cogito, Ergo 'Sumo'

[whitespace] Superjesus Shut My Eyes, Open My Ears: Superjesus.

Sophie Howarth

Australia's alterna-rock champs, the Superjesus, wrestle sonic havoc on new 'Sumo' album

By Nicky Baxter

Three years ago, the Superjesus couldn't buy a gig in its native Australia. The group's guitar- and voice-driven brand of alterna-rock was considered unhip. All that changed with the release of the quartet's debut recording, Eight Step Rail.

The album dominated the indie-rock charts. The single "Shut My Eyes" garnered massive airplay and eventually won the Australian equivalent of a Grammy. Sumo (Warner Bros.), the Superjesus' sophomore effort, ought to solidify the band's position as one of the more pleasant surprises of the last few years.

Sumo boasts roaring guitars, giddy melodies and churning rhythms. Singer/guitarist Sarah McLeod possesses a fetching vocal style, unpretentious and pure. She is, as well, a gifted, if somewhat cryptic, lyricist. Her wordsmithing tends toward brooding introspection.

Chris Tennant is a sure-handed melodicist and an imaginative fretsmith. On Sumo, Tennant unleashes sonic havoc, summoning up thunderous chords as well as oddball riffs. "Down Again," the opening salvo, explodes with a buzzing guitar ripping through a tightly wound pulse. McLeod's vocal is an emotionally charged plaint that finds the singer yearning for acknowledgment: "Now I'm under the sun/Won't anyone see that I'm alive/Every time I fall asleep and still survive."

"Saturation" is just as clamorous, with its flint-edged, propulsive beat and strafing guitar. Tennant's solo is picture-perfect, roiling with passion and grace. He is as equally compelling when he embellishes the rhythmic base with textured washes of sound. McLeod's singing is assertive without being abrasive.

"Now and Then" is taken at a more deliberate pace, with angelic vocals, glittering acoustic guitar and blissed-out strings. McLeod is alternately clear-eyed and wistful about a relationship. When she trills "And though my eyes are opening/It's only now and then/But I'll never know when," it's difficult to discern whether she really wants to move on.

"Shut My Eyes" (lifted from the band's debut album) boasts a catchy hook, an eminently hummable chorus and lots of cool guitar histrionics. If "Shut My Eyes" is genuinely satisfying power-pop, "I'm Stained" is Sumo's definitive moment. Here Tennant and his companions come off like a less cranky Smashing Pumpkins.

Tennant pulls out all of the stops, deploying a myriad of guitar stylings, all wonderfully idiosyncratic and bursting with invention. Layers of strikingly coherent chordal work gradually build to a climax--and this is before McLeod even opens her mouth. When she does, it is pure bliss, despite the morbid lyrical theme.

Throughout, the rhythm section--bassist Stuart Rudd and drummer Paul Berryman--more than earns its keep. On tunes like "Sandfly," Rudd and Berryman keep things simple, laying down an unobtrusive groove while Tennant and McLeod strut their stuff. Elsewhere ("Now and Then," "Shut My Eyes"), their contributions are more obvious, nailing down the beat with precision and power.

Sumo represents an extraordinary progression for a band that was considered anything but super not that long ago. The Superjesus may not be capable of saving our souls, but it can surely salvage a bad day. And in these desperate times, that's about as much as anyone could ask for.

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Web extra to the September 10-16, 1998 issue of Metro.

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