Sweet Trip: A Sputnik Guide
This feature is part of a hopefully ongoing series aimed at exploring the discographies of interesting and/or important bands whose wider body of work is often overlooked on this site. There will be lots of words and a few pictures, but the main deal is that if a band features here, they are good and you should listen to them! And if you already jam them, hit up the comments and explain where and why this is wrong! Get going!
Few projects inspire childlike wonder quite like San Francisco’s Sweet Trip. Comprised of multi-instrumentalist/programmer Robero Burgos, vocalist Valerie Cooper and a slim roster of session contributors, this project’s respective forays into indietronica, shoegaze, IDM, glitch and dream pop are so richly atmospheric and emotively crafted that they breeze effortlessly over listener preconceptions and strike to the heart of that early-teen feeling of awe at the sheer expressive and imaginative power of music. For those whose childhoods followed the correct timeline, this should align neatly with your first-time-hearing-Dark Side of the Moon memories.
Fortunately, Sweet Trip come with none of the teenage baggage – there’s something deeply cleansing about their approach to simple melodies and sophisticated arrangements that, even at their most intense or erratic, never fails to make me feel as though some previously unnoticed weight has suddenly disappeared from my shoulders. Roberto Burgos has a talent for imbuing mechanical sounds with a human touch, his washed-out soundscapes and glitching beats full of warmth and personability, while Valerie Cooper’s unextravagent vocals have a purity that anchors every song she she appears in to a welcoming set of motifs.
Thus equipped, it’s staggering how many sales the pair explore, only to arrive time and time again at the same sense of relaxation; their centrepiece album Velocity : Design : Comfort is an explosively creative mapping of the furthest reaches of the indietronica spectrum, while their output either side unpacks pockets of that album’s mushroom cloud with steady precision. Sweet Trip’s short discography is interesting but straightforward to present in its evolution, but it’s not nearly as time-efficient to consume as it may appear. All their material is atmospheric in a way that rewards repeat listens with rare generosity, and there’s a deeper scope to even the most flashy of their fireworks displays. This enduring value perhaps explains their counties prominence in online discussions despite not having released an album in eleven years; the voyage of discovery that takes plays throughout their albums has withstood the passage of time with near effortlessness so far, and now is as good a time to dive in as any.
More an understated gem than a dazzling showcase of potential, Halica takes Sweet Trip’s IDM and shoegaze influences as the basis for some of the sparsest tracks in the group’s catalogue. Thoroughly atmospheric and broadly unconcerned with immediacy, this feels like a classic ‘90s post-rock album rewired to an electric framework. Halica is full of the same overwhelming spaciousness that inspires momentary ego death when you stand in front of a vast panorama; everything about this album hints at an endless, unfilled distance that extends well beyond what our senses could hope to process in one go. It uses an appropriately simple toolkit to draw its audience in: there’s nothing individually intense about its skittering beats, shimmering synthscapes or delicate guitar accentuations, but hearing Burgos animate them as organically as the gorgeous opener “Fish”, with its weightless ebb and flow and half-forgotten dream of a vocalise refrain, makes for the first of many transportive experiences that would become his bread and butter. The rest of the album feels like a streamlined unpacking of “Fish”’s subtle dynamics and nostalgic purity, with the closer “Jelly Charm” rounding things off with a more haunting tone, a dour note of mystery at the end of an otherwise liberating cruise through the heavens. Halica is a perfect debut insofar as it stretches Sweet Trip’s canvas to the edge of their imaginative and atmospheric frame leaving the centre largely untouched for the time being. More exciting things lie ahead, but no Sweet Trip album inspires its listener to stare into space quite so deeply as this one.
Tracks you need: Fish, Jelly Charm, Follow Me
If Halica was an expansive canvas of imagination, the Alura EP feels more like a self-explanatory showcase of Sweet Trip’s proficiency in IDM conventions. While Halica’s Seefeel influence was no less apparent, so much of this EP nods to the work of contemporary Warp Records names that it has probably the weakest identity of any Sweet Trip release; the beats are classic Aphex with a pinch less flair, while the off-kilter modulated keys in the title-track and ”Serniga” could have come straight out of Plaid’s playbook, with their disoriented chord structures. There’s nothing off about these influences, but they’re packaged so straightforwardly that Alura ends up a little short of the intrigue and wonder that make Sweet Trip at their best so exceptional.
“Palomar, Your Shadow Is The Yellow Sun” is the most successful track here, with its bold synth melodies, intricate glitches and midway key change into immaterial ambience all evoking the group’s finer qualities; this song is effectively a six-minute warm-up act for Velocity : Design : Comfort’s wholesale unleashing of every trick and technique in Burgos’ arsenal. Alura is a decent listen, but rather than offering some kind of ‘missing link’ between Halica’s distant vistas and Velocity’s crackling synergy, it’s more of an appendix for Sweet Trip’s electronic credentials. Most of their releases invite their listeners to become dreamers; Alura’s scope has more in common with whatever you find on rotation in your nearest independent cafe.
Rating: B minus
Tracks you need: Palomar, Your Shadow Is The Yellow Sun, Serniga
Velocity : Design : Comfort (2003)
The centrepiece of Sweet Trip’s discography and a masterclass in so many styles that you can recommend it to music fans on a universal basis: Velocity : Design : Comfort covers so much ground so well and with such depth that it resists the stigmas of excess or scrappiness that usually accompany diverse undertakings and comes out as a bona fide masterpiece. The trademark Sweet Trip sense of bliss and wonder is here in spades, but whereas Halica presented them in unadulterated sparseness, Velocity reinvents it as a series of bastard pleasures that have no business working so cogently alongside each other. This album is like taking the best shower of your life in surging electricity, like riding an empty subway carriage to the moon at sunset, or like eating a gorgeous pizza topped with the finest selection of your younger self’s hope and dreams.
The scope here is not to be understated. Back in 2015, Hyperion1001’s review of the album offered a convincing framing of its strength, but made the error of fixating on it as a shoegaze piece; Velocity : Design : Comfort certainly holds up when viewed under that lens, but why experience it through the myopia of Loveless perma-pink when it lays down such a stunning adventure in technicolour? Whether it’s danceable indie pop (“Dsco”), glitch-heavy IDM (“Tekka”, “Design : 1”), drum and bass (“Pro : Lov : Ad”, “Dedicated”), selectively acoustic indietronica epics (“Sept”, “International”) or searing exercises in much heralded shoegaze (“Chocolate Matter”, “Design : 2 : 3”), Velocity maps out an intrepid range of styles with steadfast consistency, at comfortable at its coolest and calmest as at its most jarring and irregular.
On this basis, I can see this album meaning a range of different things to different people. Perhaps, like Hyperion, you could take it as closing the door opened by My Bloody Valentine on the creative potential of shoegaze; perhaps, as here , you might view it as a maximalist flashpoint on the loose path of glitch pop and indietronica that started with Vespertine and Finally We Are No One and ended with Macaroom’s Homephone TE; maybe you’ll see as a big bang moment that deserves its own creative legacy. Velocity : Design : Comfort lends itself to all these, but it resists any single one: why present a single answer when you could embrace every possibility?
Tracks you need: All of them, apart from…uh, just listen to it.
You Will Never Know Why (2009)
Rather than attempt to recreate the magic of Velocity : Design : Comfort’s impeccable fusion, You Will Never Know Why ushers in indie pop wholesale and foregoes its predecessor’s electronic wonderland almost entirely. The result is so palatable that you’ll have no trouble adjusting to it, but it comes with a certain amount of misgivings. On the one hand, such a resolute shift of style is a bold mood, on the other, it settles into a much more conservative set of structures and arrangements with its vocal-centric guitar pop; from one perspective, these vocal melodies and chord progressions feel instantly recognisable and generally gratifying as the stuff of vintage Sweet Trip, but at the same time this has the side effect of making the whole album seem nothing more than an unpacking of “Chocolate Matter”, its precedent track; some might see the album’s more structurally ambitious moments (“Acting”, “Darkness”) as going from strength to strength, but without the textural diversity of Velocity to back things up, I can’t help but hear these songs as a competent indie band shoehorning one hook after another – good by all means, but hardly exciting.
I wish I could get off the fence and either embrace You Will Never Know Why as an excellent indie pop record or write it off as a backstep into overused conventions – it tends to both sides too much for either take to encapsulate it completely. What I can say is that the record’s highlights are glorious. Valerie Cooper is the start player here, carrying the slick “Air Supply”, the emotionally fraught “Milk”, the irresistibly catchy “Pretending” and the perky “Your World Is Eternally Complete” with the grace and nuance of a seasoned dream pop frontwoman. These four songs are absolutely essential Sweet Trip cuts; the rest will likely reward you in direct proportion to your enjoyment of indie pop in general. This is no bad thing, but it’s hardly comparative to the flights of fantasy that the first two Sweet Trip LPs charted so mesmerically.
Rating: B plus
Tracks you need: Milk, Air Supply, Pretending, Your World Is Eternally Complete
NB: I’m not going to cover the 2015 You Will Never Know Why Outtakes release, as there are only two tracks and everything I say here is directly applicable to them to, but both of them are solid picks and would have done well here.
While they’ve maintained a social media presence and re-issued Velocity : Design : Comfort quite recently, Sweet Trip have had a low profile for the last decade. Their work in this time might be considered apocryphal, both because it’s been presented more as a Soundcloud project than as widely available fully-formatted albums and because it doesn’t break any entirely new ground for them in the way that their albums did, but it holds up well and is worth your time. 4-Track sees them playing Halica-style shoegaze with the ‘band’ format of You Will Never Know Why, and the results will doubtless give any of the band’s indie fans cause to swoon. The best cuts tend more towards the latter album: “Deep” feels like a zanier take on the same songwriting methodology, while “To Live On Valium” is a lusher, more romantic track that wouldn’t have felt out of place on Souvlaki. On the other hand, some of this EP borders on the immaterial. For instance, the closer “Sweet Trip (We Used to Play This Sounded Like Stars)” is a 10-minute chillfest that sounds half like an extended Halica remix and half like a well-rehearsed bedroom project: a true shoegaze song, for better or for worse. “No Title Half” is a slightly more robust story with a vocal performance from Burgos that harkens back to heyday shoegaze, or perhaps a less saturated version of what Slowdive (whose presence is prominent here) presented two years later on their self-titled album. As far as Sweet Trip: Shoegaze DLC goes, 4-Track fares similarly to Alura’s IDM showcase – convincing enough, but hardly essential in the wider scheme of the band’s portfolio.
Tracks you need: To Live On Valium, Deep
Want to know a dirty secret? Uh, okay then? So, one of my (many) favourite tracks on Velocity : Design : Comfort is “Design : 1”; despite being little more than a glitchy techno interlude, that track’s unassuming, self-interrupting groove always did a lot for me and seemed strangely catchy. Well, it turns out that the Seen/Unseen compilation of apparently unofficial material (released on the group’s therefore supposedly also unofficial Soundcloud page) is as close as can be imagined to an album-long unpacking of that track! These ten tracks are unextravagent electronic tracks that I would call IDM if it weren’t for the fact that you can absolutely dance to this without adjusting your brainpower. Remember that banger “Fingerbib” off the Richard D. James Album? Similar story here! Those less on board with the project’s pure electronic side could make many of the same complaints that I made for You Will Never Know Why, and while they’d be somewhat well-founded as such, this is a ten-track bop that ticks most of the boxes for whatever I’d hope a Sweet Trip archival release to be.
Rating: A minus
Tracks you need: Monica Belucci, Foencahl (AKAI S6000 Mix), Unconscious Living
Well, what are you still doing here?? Get out there and dig in – or post your takes on the ins and outs of Sweet Trip where everyone can see them!
In the meantime, Roberto Burgos announced new music in late 2019, so stay tuned for new material of some kind arriving in the vague future…!