It’s difficult for me to retain any semblance of journalistic objectivity when it comes to The Sundresses. My first exposure to their special brand of madness was at my first South By Southwest in 2004, which happened to be the band’s first SXSW, as well, and only their eighth or ninth out of town gig at that point. Based on their summery, sugar Pop name, I had an idea in my head of how they would sound; I couldn’t have been more wrong if I’d envisioned them with lederhosen and Alpine horns playing Polka covers of Guns ’N Roses songs.
In 45 sweat-soaked minutes, The Sundresses reordered my musical universe and won me over completely. In the six years since that unexpected set in Austin, whenever I have stood in an audience and faced the Sundresses in a live setting, they have not disappointed in any way.
Perhaps it's fitting then that the new Sundresses album, Sundresses Off, is a live offering that showcases the band’s performance gifts with the visceral wallop that can only be achieved in front of their amps. It’s also proof that the Dresses work straight from the gut, as they begin their set at Asbury Lanes in Asbury Park, N.J., with Jeremy Springer’s playfully ominous introduction (“We’re The Sundresses from Cincinnati, Ohio, and you’re about to find out...”) and follow it with the emotional powder-keg of “Strange Fruit,” the quiet Jazz classic that poetically details the horror of racial intolerance and which the band has rearranged into a top-volume hellbilly Blues screed.
Off is ironclad evidence of The Sundresses’ power as a live entity, as every track they present on stage is an adrenalized, bug-eyed evocation of the adrenalized, bug-eyed song they conceived in the studio. From the crazed Blues howl of “House of the Drowning Sun” to the psychotic swing of “Heater 5:00” to the slinky throb of “King Killer of Murder Town,” the two-headed guitar/drums/vocals monster of Springer and Brad Schnittger and the primitive sophistication of Makenzie Place, the little woman with the big bass (and trombone). Don’t ever forget that sweet trombone, transforming even their quietest musical moments into flailing exercises in demonic possession and chaotic control.
The second set on Off was recorded at Northside Tavern on New Year’s Eve five years ago when the band was, according to Springer, blackout-altered on a variety of ingestibles, and yet they nail every track from their eponymous debut with hellhound authenticity and scuffed-note passion.The disparity between Off’s two sets is slight, proof of how subtly The Sundresses have improved since they formed eight years ago and how good they were right from the start, a scalding live testament to the ethos of The Sundresses and the contention that they are one of the best bands to rise from the local scene in a good many years.