Though often billed as a side project of its participants, most notably Dinosaur Jr’s J Mascis, the true core of Sweet Apple is principal songwriter John Petkovic, former member of Death of Samantha and Cobra Verde. Formed in the late aughts, in the wake of the death of Petkovic’s mother, the group’s first offerings were marked by their levity. With cheeky takes on anthemic power pop and psych, the band offered exorcism through rock and roll bluster and a rotating cast of game collaborators. With Sweet Apple’s third full-length, Sing The Night In Sorrow, we are treated to more of the same, but dashed with a newfound sense of earnestness.
While the songs orbit around themes of loneliness and abandonment, the somber subject matter does not necessarily limit the album’s tone to downtempo dirges. Press materials speak to a conscious split between the noise of the city and softer sounds of the town. The album was written to “reflect both the left-for-dead urban landscapes of places like Cleveland and the forgotten small towns of New England — places crawling with drugs and ghosts and people that have been left behind,” as Petkovic puts it.
The band delivers on the promise of variety. The glammy crunch of “World I’m Gonna Leave You,” with a vocal assist from guest Mark Lanegan, boasts a healthy dose of rock and roll swagger and self-destructive nihilism. “Sun, I’m going to lose you, shoot out the stars, black out the sky,” Lanegan growls. And the band still aims for the arena on tracks like “You Don’t Belong to Me,” which places vocal harmony amid bombastic guitars in comfortingly familiar juxtaposition.
Lanegan is a former Sweet Apple collaborator, as is Guided By Voices’ Robert Pollard, who is billed as a guest on two tracks, including the heartbreaking closer, “Everybody’s Leaving.” “Should I run away? Should I follow,” he wonders as he hints at shuttered factories and migration to greener pastures.
The real highlights of the album are those songs on which Rachel Haden appears. On all three tracks, which vary greatly in tone, her confident vocals elevate the affair. The best of these, “ A Girl And A Gun,” finds her in a back and forth with Petkovic. She talks sense, reasons the romance out of the conversation. “Somehow I get the feeling that you’re leaving,” he croons. “You were never here,” she replies.
Sweet Apple’s casual, low-stakes approach is wholly inviting. Even when the chemistry isn’t there, the camaraderie among the collaborators, the shared sensibility, is still felt and when it is there, as with the Haden tracks, it feels like magic. On all of Sweet Apple’s albums, the listener can witness the coalescence or lack thereof.