Nicholas Stuart and Hugh Masterson know something about the old gypsy curse.
2008: The Wildbirds fulfill the promise of coast-to-coast wowing and a big label deal with “Golden Daze,” which belongs on any shortlist of the best Milwaukee albums. Steven Van Zandt features “Suzanna” on one of his “Underground Garage” compilations. ESPN plays “421” during X Games promos. The band gives an old bus one of those Willie Nelson biofuel makeovers and heads West for more shows, more fans, more record sales, and maybe some road trip anecdotes to build album number 2 around.
And it’s at just that moment -- that big moment every band dreams about from the second they clear mom and dad’s car out of the garage for their first practice -- that the Wildbirds fell apart. Tensions and tour stress simmered. Two thousand miles passed like two million. The bus broke. The label went broke. The band went broke, played its shows, and then broke up.
Be careful what you wish for.
Or, to put it another way, “Sunshine Blues,” those ineffable moments when things can’t get any better or any worse. Even with only half the original band intact, the Wildbirds’ six-song comeback EP is an ebullient reconciliation that sounds like it was recorded after the airing of grievances and lots of drunken hugging.
Opener “Love and Soul” sets the tone: think Rolling Stones coated in Pop Rocks, with Stuart’s morning-after wail deflecting criticism from a soon-to-be ex. Stuart’s not a bad guy -- he only gets wasted “sometimes,” you see, and from his perspective the girl is just as much to blame for refusing to love him at his worst. “We Can Work It Out” this is not, but that sentiment, that longing for understanding and acceptance between two irritated parties is at the heart of the album, and Stuart’s appeal. Like any good lead singer he’s a bit of a hedonistic lout, but he’s more sensitive than most, attuned to the short term gains of bad behavior versus the long term losses. He sounds happiest on the bouncy ballad “There’s Nobody Like You and Me,” lazing away in that universe of shared mundaneness that can exist between two people. “Golden Daze,” great as it was, didn’t feel this personal. I guess a two-year hiatus from a good thing gets you thinking.
Perhaps because of that introspection, “Sunshine Blues” doesn’t quite rattle your speakers like “Golden Daze” did -- the disc is more “Suzanna,” less “421” or “Shake Shake.” Wildbirds 2.0, including Quinn Scharber and Bradley Kruse, are more composed, a step slower, and more creative lyrically. “Like a Cigarette” is why every time you’re in a wedding party the priest warns you not to drink before the ceremony. Groom Stuart teeters at the altar, slurring his vows over a hip-shaking blues beat that has no business in a church, begging his bride-to-be not to break his heart. It doesn’t take a stone-faced mother-in-law to know Stuart has staggered to the wrong side of that equation. When the girl finally wises up, Stuart can’t even woo her back without thinking of himself first. “Money in My Hand” is a fabulous, desperate, sing-a-long rocker -- the disc’s best -- and, when you think about it, a really lousy simile to coo after a girl who’s storming out the door.
Stuart knows better. Ominous confessional “Black and Gray” rumbles with Drive-By Truckers guitar thunder and lonely desolation. Glimmers of remembered bliss light the lovely title track’s train ride out of town and after the girl, even if the trip sounds unlikely to succeed. “I’m forever misunderstood,” Stuart concludes in all sincerity, setting up the next argument before it even begins. A happy life with the right person is the ideal on “Sunshine Blues,” the natural order of things at odds with our natural selfishness and stubbornness. If the Wildbirds haven’t figured out how to settle these problems, they’ve at least made peace with them, and some exciting new music to boot.