I have been assured that those are not real worms on the album cover, but root-beer flavored Gummi Worms. Still disgusting, but not grossly, slimily, creepily disgusting.
The sound of Sugar Stems is as far away from wormy and disgusting as you can get, and even though they’re Milwaukee-based, they have nothing in common with Laverne & Shirley except there are two girls and two guys (and no, the guys are not named Lenny and Squiggy). What they are is an engaging power pop band with surprising lyrical depth whose music should be featured regularly in Little Steven’s Coolest Songs in the World if there’s any justice left in America.
Can’t Wait gets off to a drag race start with “Greatest Pretender,” with guitar and drums flying down the road, building energy for Betsy Heibler’s superb vocals. I love vocalists who can really do descending glissandi, like Little Richard does so well on the word “gal” in the second line of the verses in “Tutti Frutti.” Betsy performs this trick like a champ on the last word of the verses and it gives me the chills every time. I also love the way her voice fades directly into the guitar riff at the end of the first chorus. “Greatest Pretender” is a power-packed song with no empty spaces: it just rocks.
However, the tension between the cheery power pop melody and the edgy lyrics is what raises “Greatest Pretender” to another level. The narrator in the song is a chick who strives to fulfill his every need and fantasy, but the little prick is completely unable to keep his pecker in his pants when other female opportunities present themselves. Our heroine is engaged in a two-front war: one with her lothario and the other an inner war with her identity and self-worth:
I am the blood in your veins
And I am churnin’ like a hurricane
One day I’m gonna throw it all away
I am the air that you breathe
And I am your worst enemy
I am whatever you want me to be
‘Cause I’m your greatest pretender, you know (3)
And I’m all your whores.
“Like I Do” opens with a riff kind of like a high-speed version of The Who’s “I Can’t Explain,” leading to a solid rocker where Betsy combines sass and sweetness as she muses on the classic chick theme, “it won’t get any better than me, asshole.” The little touches of harmony from bass player Stephanie Swinney Conard show once again how small things can often have more power than the grandiose. Not a band in a hurry to slow down, next up is the title track “Can’t Wait,” featuring lower-register harmonies from lead guitarist Drew Fredrichsen and a driving, crashing beat from drummer Jon Heibler.
We finally slow down a teeny bit (not that I was complaining) with “Landline Static,” a mid-tempo life-on-the-road number powered by acoustic strum, a song with a bit more musical complexity but still very accessible. I love the way Betsy splits syllables on this song (lie-ayne, sky-aye, Ju-lye-aye), but even without those great touches, this is her strongest vocal on the album, full of confidence and clarity, with a tinge of country. It’s also a beautiful song with a pleasing melody and strong lyrics. I love the brilliant refrain, “When you’re all alone, a million miles from home, you know you can go back like landline static on the telephone,” a feeling of irresolvable distance I get when I’m on the road and my honey is at home—even with video it’s not the same as having all five senses engaged in the experience of another person.“Landline Static” also demonstrates that Can’t Wait is much more than your garden-variety pop collection.
Reinforcing that perception, “Magic Act” opens with an introductory passage of acoustic guitar blending with organ and either a marimba or a xylophone, creating a delightful moment of fantasy and wonder. The song then shifts to a groove kind best described as Keith’s “98.6” on steroids and amphetamines, with a high-speed whirling melody and tight rhythms. The story of another experience with a wayward lover is engaging and Betsy delivers them with the snappy soulful attitude you hear in Gladys Knight’s best stuff. Drew Fredrichsen then steps up to the mike for a turn as lead vocalist in the raw guitar-and-snare driven melodic rocker “Get to You.” Drew has a warm, engaging, slightly husky voice that was designed for melodic rock.
Betsy comes back with a defiant vocal in “Told You So.” With its tagline, “the world you live in is so fucked up,” one might get the impression that this is a protest song of sorts, and it is—a protest against people who take a doom-and-gloom attitude towards the world and instead of doing anything about it, just “bottle it up, keep your mouth shut.” It’s kind of like Bjork’s “Army of Me,” directed at the passive-aggressive. It’s followed by the toe-tapping, “Make Up Your Mind,” a relationship frustration song with some fine guitar work from Drew Fredrichsen.
“Love You to Pieces” is another mid-tempo song with a slight country feel that describes a love-hate relationship with some of the strongest and most emotionally honest lyrics on the album. The song deals with the classic tension of the opposites that passion can excite (and the confusing desires it often carries with it):
Always liked the taste of birthday cake
Until you took a piece and put in on my plate,
And said, “Baby, what do you think of me now?”
Well, I chewed it up, I spit it out.
I wanna hug and kiss and hold you all night
But sometimes when I do I want to kill you at the same time,
If I could find a way to just hold you tight,
I would wrap my arms around you ‘til I’m choking off your air supply.
Ready or not, I’m coming over,
You can run but you can’t hide and I keep getting closer
No matter how bad it hurts, I love you to pieces.
Never liked the way that my face looked
Until you told me I was beautiful and I got hooked
On loving myself, yeah, much more than you,
Straight to my head, honey, what could I do?
Many women find themselves addicted to male validation, a craving as strong as the addict’s need for a heroin fix. The tendency in the female half of the species to develop greater emotional intelligence is a double-edged sword: yes, it makes us better facilitators but it also leaves us vulnerable with people (male or female) who approach relationships from the perspective of me-me-me. Despite the emotionally complex story line, the song flows naturally and easily, leaving room for the listener to appreciate the subtleties in Betsy’s wonderful vocal.
Equally challenging from a storytelling perspective is the album’s surprisingly cheerful closer, “Six Feet Under,” a song that reminds those who pray for something better in an afterlife, “Don’t hold your breath, you might not get what you want when you’re six feet under.” This is one of Betsy’s more straight-line bubblegum deliveries, supported by sweet spot harmonies, and the disarmingly innocent sound of the song creates another ironic contrast.
The more I listen to Can’t Wait, the more I love it and the more I appreciate its depth and complexity. If you don’t feel like tuning into the fascinating tales described in the lyrics, you’ll still have a marvelous listening experience, as the melodies are delightful and the band is as tight as can be. Sugar Stems is a marvelously talented group with a clear idea of who they are and where they want to go, and with a lead singer like Betsy Heibler, they deserve to go a long, long way.
I could still do without the Gummi Bears, though. Maybe if I soak them in vodka . . .