Sunnysiders  
The Bridges

Four and a half reels
4.5/5

Very few people recognize nutmeg when used in cooking, but everyone always appreciates the spice. Nutmeg brings something interesting to the flavor table, but most of us aren't quite sure what that something is. The Sunnysiders' The Bridges is expansive blues, with lots of heart, grit, and charming musical touches, with some European accents to make it sound like something new, the musical version of nutmeg.

The Sunnysiders are a Croatian band led by singer Antonija Vrgoč Rola and singer/guitarist Boris Hrepić Hrepa. Rola's voice is sweet, vulnerable, and emotive. The bluesiness often reads as a weariness, like she's given us everything she has and there's nothing left in the tank. Hrepa's voice is grittier, more on the Tom Waits end of the spectrum. The two voices together are wonderful, different from each other, yet somehow meshing together like Legos.

"Flogging a Dead Horse" is more Leonard Cohen than Leonard Chess, borrowing a groove from "First We Take Manhattan," with more organic musical undertones, courtesy of guest guitarist Neno Belan's acoustic strums. Hrepa's rough voice starts the song over a sheen of organ, with Rola's vocals coming in to take something beautiful-yet-unvarnished and make it beautiful, without smoothing over Hrepa's contours. The blues comes through in the song's underlying sadness, and also its lyrics, even as the chorus music unexpectedly goes poppy: "Fate is so low / Weak is the force / Cause we are flogging / A dead horse."

"Not the One of Those" has a Talking Heads/"Life During Wartime" swing, although as with "Flogging," it uses a rootsier sonic palette. In this case, it's brought down home via a harmonica line from guest Krešo "Sonny Boy" Oremuš. Once again, as Hrepa and Rola duet, you can hear each voice clearly, neither overpowering the other. You can imagine lowering each voice n the mix, allowing them to sing one at a time; the song would still work, but it wouldn't achieve the same depth as when the two voices venture out into the track together.

But on an album of beautiful songs, "Heaven Blues Band," which is about the blues greats we've lost, stands out. The track features the Norman Beaker Trio, haunting slide giving the tune a blues tint, but with the rest of the track, especially Rola and Hrepa's vocals, giving the song a Central European seriousness. It's the Sunnersiders giving us the kind of blues that only a band with their lived experiences, mostly outside of the United States could create.

If you're reading this, you understand the international appeal of the blues, but it's still a treat to hear the genre transformed by other people and places. As the blues traveled outside of the American south, to places as close as Chicago and Texas and as far away as Croatia, it's taken on new, local characteristics. The Sunnysiders nail the blues sound, but also create something new and lovely.