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"Album Reviews: Sunmay "You Can Make Beautiful Things""

By Salvador Santos

Deborah Bartley has long been one of Seattle's revered singer/songwriters… at least to a small demographic of its population. Despite three critically-lauded records released on her homespun "Wandering Eye" label, it's no secret that being a female songwriter with an acoustic guitar brings with it certain "baggage:" stereotypes, preconceptions, and labeling, which can make it damn impossible grow an audience much larger than the smallest of venues. Not to say that Bartley doesn't have her causes and opinions — just pay attention to her poetically concise lyrics — but one gets the feeling that Deborah has been pining for an opportunity to take her art, and with it her audience, to the next level. Enter Chris Pugh and Andy Sheen.

You may vaguely recall Pugh and Sheen from their former band Swallow, not to be confused with the sublime British shoegazer band by the same name. Pugh and Sheen's Swallow released two records on Sub Pop prior to the "Grunge explosion" (Okay, at least some of us still recall the days of Tad, U-Men, and Skin Yard — before Everett True fucked it all up). Let's bring this together: Bartley, Pugh and Sheen have been playing live shows together over the course of the past five years. Earlier this year they waltzed into a studio and recorded 14 new songs over the course of two days. Whether or not this new material was originally intended to be used for the next Deborah Bartley release is not clear, but what is clear is the welcome change in direction that resulted.

Bartley has always had a strong grasp of words and melody, this cannot be denied, and what is found on Sunmay's debut record is her strongest material to date — quite possibly the catapult to a larger audience. Granted, while a few of the tracks on You Can Make Beautiful Things may be a bit more "conventional" than others, the dynamic production style of Colm Meek has brought out the best in each song, adding emphasis, subtlety, nuances and dynamics where it had been missing from Bartley's prior efforts. Two songs which stand above the rest, causing repeated plays in my stereo, are "Resurfacing" and "Sucker Punch," both of which could easily become top singles in the AAA charts. Truth be told, I haven't heard such powerful numbers as these two since the glory days of Tori Amos and Sinead O'Connor. Yes, they are that good, and alone make this record worth the purchase. The rest of the album, while having plenty of strong and charming moments (a clear-voiced and graceful cover of The Cure's "Let's Go To Bed," for example), doesn't hold a candle to these two songs.

Okay, so first you tell me that this is her strongest material to date, and possibly the record to really launch her, and then you turn around in the same sentence and tell me that there are three or four shining moments on this otherwise conventional record? So, which is it…?

Both. It's true. While I am completely smitten by a handful of songs, and a smidge underwhelmed by the remainder, I nonetheless stand by my word that Deborah Bartley has found a vehicle in Sunmay that, if continued to be explored and stretched, will undoubtedly yield amazing results for her. You just wait.

"Border Radio"

As we roll through the final third of summer, it seems fitting that two of the fastest-rising roots music acts in town are trios. Folk threesome Sunmay, who mix the winsome vocals of Deborah Bartley with acoustic instrumentation and subtle electronics, play twice this week in support of their recent debut, You Can Make Beautiful Things. On Sunday, August 21, they join Jen Wood, Robb Benson, and others at Chop Suey, in a benefit for the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation. And on Tuesday, August 23, they warm up for Rebecca Gates (Spinanes) at the Tractor.

- The Stranger


You Can Make Beautiful Things (Release Date: June 18, 2005)



Sunmay’s debut, “You Can Make Beautiful Things,” defies easy categorization. Full of the understated sparseness of old country folk, it is woven throughout with pure pop sensibility and lush orchestration. The record showcases Sunmay’s split affinity for acoustic purity and electronic experimentation.

From the invisibility of Meek’s layered production to Pugh’s melodic and intuitive guitar, Sunmay’s first obligation is to the song, each element added with intention.

Dubbed “a storyteller in the purest sense” and “the latest folk savior to watch” (Albuquerque Weekly), Bartley writes intelligent, intimate, and stunningly poetic songs. Her voice, compared to Beth Orton (Seattle Weekly) and Natalie Merchant (Willamette Week), is gorgeous and sincere, as she entwines her snapshot stories into the rootsy, ethereal sounds she creates with Pugh and Scheen.

Bartley and Pugh began playing music together in her attic apartment in late 2000. They soon enlisted upright bassist Andy Scheen to join them for local performances. Pugh and Scheen had been friends since their teens and had formed Seattle band, Swallow, in the early 90s, releasing two records on Subpop.

Sunmay recorded 14 songs during a weekend in January at the studio of friend, Colm Meek. After listening back to the recording, Meek encouraged them to work on a full release. Over the next few months, with Meek and several friends, including, Mark Ekert (Heliotroupe), Scott Vanderpool (Chemistry Set, Room Nine), and Red Diamond, Sunmay completed the 11 songs that make up “You Can Make Beautiful Things”.

In addition to their work with Sunmay, Pugh makes up a third of techno-downbeaters, saba, and Scheen performs in a big band. Bartley has released three full-length solo recordings. (

You Can Make Beautiful Things is Sunmay’s first release.