First Impressions: Sara Bug – self-titled

After living with it for near two months, I’m still not sure what to make of Sara Bug’s self-titled debut album, which is slated for a May 14th release. Most review requests find me listening to half a song before moving on to something else, which is why the bulk of what I spotlight are things that I stumble upon on my own. But since clicking play on this album in early March, I’ve listened from the opening “Die With You” to the closing “Back to Nashville” more days than not. It’s quirky and compelling, the kind of music that pushes itself to the foreground. 

First things first: Sara Bug is a family nickname given to her not because she was a pest, but because of her diminutive stature. She bills herself as the “world’s finest southern-kitsch artist” and gives a quick bio: “born in Mississippi, raised in Louisiana, stuck in Nashville.” Her songs are far from garish, however. Rather, they’re well-honed odes that tackle such topics as a loved one’s death, her insecurities, escape, friendship and (what else?) romantic troubles.

“Die With You,” the first track, is a perfect keynote address, as It opens with an acoustic guitar and concludes with what might best be called an intense baroque breakdown. (I half-expected to hear someone croaking “cranberry sauce” during the fadeout.) It’s dark and lush, in other words, with the music a perfect accent to her off-kilter lyrics: “I wanna be happy/I wanna be with you/my whole life through/I wanna die with you.”

It seems fanciful and oddly weird on the surface, I suppose, but the undertow is strong and sure. Reading between the lines, it seems less about romantic love (or her idea of it) and more about yearning for success. She wants to die with it.

The songs that follow unfold in a similar manner. In “Lotta Pride,” she processes an aunt’s untimely death and also returning to her roots. “Rosebank” and “Lost Track” find her coping the best she can with relationship issues; in the former, she rides her motorcycle as a means of escape while, in the latter, she delves into the difficulty of letting go. “Purgatory,” meanwhile, finds her facing an obstacle in her path to happiness: herself.

“Ride on Sundys” (not a misspelling, but a play on words) sounds like a song Curtis Mayfield and Dolly Parton would have written if they’d spent time together. In the press release, she says it’s “about the guilt of being sad and trying to bandage it with isolation.” Musically, it’s something of a misdirection, with the joyous melody at odds with the lyrics, which find her confessing that she’s only happy now and then. It’s a great song.

In the “Beholder,” she battles a world in which we often accept other’s judgments of us as well as her desire to move from the city to the country. A brief outro leads into the album’s second piece de resistance, “Back to Nashville,” in which she explores her love-hate relationship with city life: “But somethin’ ain’t real/‘bout these cities and these lights/and there’s no place more lonesome/than Broadway at night.”

At times, especially on “Back to Nashville,” she sounds like a young Dolly Parton, but her portfolio is primarily the avant-garde. Her songs come across like colorful pop art pressed to wax, if that makes sense, and are forever fascinating. While I’m still not sure what to make of the album – I like it. In fact, though I’ve been playing the high-octane/CD-quality .wav files provided to me, I splurged and bought the LP, which arrived two weeks early. If you’re in the mood for something different and brilliant, give it a whirl.

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