A Killer Named Sugar
The term tour de force hasn’t appeared in many of our record reviews over the years, for the simple reason that so few releases merit the term. Renée Coolbrith’s solo debut, A Killer Named Sugar, is a tour de force, a stunning display of pop vocal artistry applied across numerous genres.
There’s the ’90s alt-rock of opener “Late” and “Small Cities,” an acid rebuke of Portland provincialism. There’s the dreamy electronica of the haunting “Sister Asylum” and “Flowers Are Evil,” both collaborations with musical mastermind C$ Burns. There’s the modern R&B of “I Think,” the classic soul of “Nobody Else,” and — why not? — even a ragtime track, “$ugar,” to close out this 10-song album.
Coolbrith slays throughout, singing with the skill and confidence of a seasoned pro. A Killer Named Sugar is sonically adventurous, and the songwriting is unconventional, which keeps every track sounding fresh. For example, on “Nobody Else,” Coolbrith eschews the temptation to return to its full chorus a second time; had this been an actual Stax or Hi Records single, she’d have milked it dry. As it stands, this is quite possibly the finest soul song ever recorded in the state of Maine. Just a crusher.
Lyrically, all is not well in Coolbrith’s world. Lies and loss weigh heavy on her mind, and broken people people these songs, like the subject of “Sister Asylum,” “so gentle / and mental,” sneaking “downstairs” and getting picked up by cops on a highway who “said they had to knock you out.” On the gorgeous slow-burner “Kiss in the Sky,” she asks, “Are you wasted tonight? / Look me straight in the eye” with a conviction that’s downright chilling.
My buddy Mike at Electric Buddhas, the record store on Congress Street, said this debut “has ‘breakout’ written all over it.” He’s been selling copies of the CD at the register in a little cardboard box. It seems Coolbrith has been casually dropping copies around town —I got mine atop a stack of Mainers at Ruski’s one night after she’d left the West End tavern. For fuck’s sake, will some music-industry honcho finally recognize the talent on display here, pluck Renée Coolbrith from this little city and help place her where she belongs, among the stars?