Don't let the cheery flute of "Out Like a Lamb," the resplendent brass of "Bright Was My Sweetheart" or the soulful organ of "Teardrops" deceive: Billy Sugarfix's Summer Tempests is a brutal little record. Though these 10 tracks are among the most brightly lit and best-arranged of Sugarfix's long tenure as a Chapel Hill songwriter, they come from the mind of a man who's so lovesick that he's not sure if it's night or day. He can't look in the mirror without hallucinating. He can't drive without spying the heart she once traced on his windshield. He can only eat too much, drink too much and watch too many cartoons. He can't think without thinking about her, and he's losing his mind.
"They say that time will heal all wounds/ In the meantime, what's a boy to do?" Sugarfix sings, reaching for the brightest interpretation of his deadpan on "Ne'er-do-well Web." It's a jangling tune with warm major chords strummed on an acoustic guitar, twinkling notes courtesy of a Rhodes organ. But it's also a sunken-eyed number about booze, drugs, the Bible and a heartbreak that can't be beat. "I've tried everything I know to get over you."
The great Summer Tempests thrives on these moments, when Sugarfix juxtaposes his own dark predilections with music that's buoyant and cheery. He realizes both the lugubrious bent of his lyrics and the barely inflected brooding of his baritone. And these things might turn more than a few away: Like Bill Callahan of Smog or David Berman of Silver Jews, Sugarfix's lyrical goods and their deep bellow of a delivery method aren't for everyone.
But here he uses them only as a core that he supports with a strong cast of female backup singers and a tasteful, proficient backing band. He sings about a seraphim of angels descending to take him away on opener "Out Like a Lamb." The gorgeous vocals and chamber ensemble gliding at his back, however, turn the dour tune into a delight. Or, doing his best David Berman on "Mirror," Sugarfix moans "I'm going downhill/ I'm physically ill." But the guitar and drums won't stop lilting, and he's forced to keep up. They seem to be pushing him to keep singing, and—in his own outlandish way—Sugarfix finally nails it.