102 Degrees Records

First, a quote from last year’s review of The Heavy Pets’ self-titled sophomore album:

“And when you get to the end of The Heavy Pets, the happy-hippies-‘round-the-campfire vibe (complete with sweet whistling) of ‘Ichabod’s Train’ will have you thinking that maybe the band has found their own ‘Ripple’.”

Ha! Little did we know, boys and girls – those rascally Pets not only found their own “Ripple” back then, but have since managed to come up with a full album of tunes that are beautifully crafted in that 1970 Dead style of acoustic-souled music. The real name of the latest album is Swim Out Past The Sun, but I’ve been referring to it as “Workingman’s Pets” since I first put an ear to it.

Of course, the presence of old Jerry Garcia buddy and mandolin maestro David Grisman only fuels the album’s Workingman’s Dead/American Beauty vibe (Grisman guested on the latter back in 1970). The Pets laid the tracks on Swim out to have Grisman’s sweet mando featured on three tunes in a row: the sweet sway of “On The Waves”; the sad smile of “Song For John”; the dreams and memories of “Grandma June”. Grisman, ever the super-talented gentleman, slips easily into the folds of The Heavy Pets’ music, his mandolin blending beautifully with the acoustic guitars and piano, all supported by easy-riding bass and drums. (Guitarist/vocalist Mike Garulli provides some just-right mouth harp on “Song For John” to seal the deal.)

Now, don’t get to thinking that the trademark Heavy Pets sound has sunk out of sight with the release of Swim Out Past The Sun – far from it. They may wear their acoustic hearts on their sleeves very well at times, but there’s still plenty of stop-on-a-dime-and-jump-three-steps-sideways change-ups, jams (and jams-to-be), honest-and-true reggae vibe, vocal harmonies, apeshit guitar, and even moments that are more just plain pop than anything – in other words, the Heavy Pets that we’ve come to know and appreciate.

Right off the bat, “3 A.M.” comes flying at you with big surf’s-up drums and a soaring guitar line; about a minute in, there’s a flurry of t-t-t-tension; brakes jam on and tones weave … are we winding up to take off flying again? Maybe … maybe … but no: there’s a momentary major-chorded breath, then off we go into the sort of sweetly-skanked reggae that the Pets are great at. The lyrics speak of head-down determination and courage; never hokey – never preachy. At the end, there’s a return to the unresolved transitional glide, right to the fade. It’s all part of the story. (If you’re new to The Heavy Pets, you need to know that these lads are white-boy reggae masters; comfortable with the genre and never sounding forced or like they’re trying to pull off an imitation of someone else. Dig the lightness of “Foolishness”, which might have turned out .. well … foolish in lesser hands. These guys are good.)

The Pets change musical costumes on the fly effortlessly. The instrumental “A Doy And His Bog” is a little Latin, a little jazzy glide, a little Sunday morning, and a little Wednesday afternoon, featuring killer acoustic guitar and lovely piano. Just when you think you have it all figured out, the percussion and swooping bass give way and everything goes into a happy little pirouette to take the tune home. Or take a listen to “Lantern”, which starts out sounding a little like Wilco in a country/poppy mood with some really nice harmonies added in.

I’ve got a pocket full of rain,
I feel so good I can’t explain
Why you’re always there to light me up,
You love to let me down …

It’s all right there and it’s all right there; if “Lantern” had ended at the 4:39 mark, we would have gotten our money’s worth. But at the last “down!” the emotion lights the fuse and the band launches into a spiral of voices, guitars, silvery threads of keys. And once again, the final jam makes absolute sense, punctuating everything the song was saying to us.

The Heavy Pets’ world continues to shift on its axis ever so slightly and expand – yet still feels solidly in orbit. They’ve accomplished what few bands are able to: pull off their first three albums without either reaching too far over their heads or resorting to the easy way out.