Of Mice & Musicians: Sugar in the Raw (Review)

Ryan Nehring


By any objective measure, Detroit has always been a city of musical innovation. Ripples in the Detroit music scene have, time and again turned into tsunamis that have crashed both coasts and inexorably changed the landscape of popular music. Its well-publicized economic woes have sadly rendered it a bit of a caricature whose nature depends on your perspective; it’s either the city equivalent of a failed nation-state or the perennial comeback kid ‘city-in-transition’ that is just about to turn the corner back into greatness. Wherever the truth lies, one thing is beyond interpretation: the art and music scenes are thriving. Out of that thriving music scene comes Of Mice and Musicians, a 7 man collective cross-section of Detroit's resurgent musical legacy.

Initially formed in 2010, Of Mice and Musicians took shape organically as freeform jam sessions progressed into something more substantial. Fusing progressive punk, neo-soul, reggae and indie Hip Hop the band found its sound while still looking for its identity. In 2012 they released their debut LP “Bottles & Bones”, a slightly underdeveloped record with flashes of brilliance amidst a chaotic but incredibly satisfying and genre-defying album.

Fronted by a triumvirate of 2 MC’s and 1 singer with a full band behind them, Of Mice and Musicians swims in the dangerous waters of a post Rock-Rap world simultaneously hopeful for the next Rage Against the Machine and still terrified of the prospect of another Limp Bizket. Smartly, OMAM doesn’t make the mistake of emulating previous bands and instead finds their own lane by channeling more authentic and personal interpretations of their varied influences.

Their new album, “Sugar In the Raw” feels like the best imaginable evolution of what might’ve happened had Sublime and Das EFX decided to lock themselves in a recording studio 20 years ago. Ostensible frontman Benjamin Miles reads like a rhyming Rottweiler constantly straining against a leash made of his own conscientiousness; his barely restrained aggression kept in check by a self-imposed maturity that he maybe doesn’t always like that much but understands is vital. Sharing rhyming duties with Miles is his long-time partner Tony Bags who combines a less polished style with an unapologetic point of view that does justice to the word “Raw” in the album title. Perhaps most important to the album’s cohesiveness are the incredibly potent vocals of singer Joseph Pelione whose staggering range of style and sound weaves an underpinning current of freshness throughout the album’s 46 minutes.

Supplying the sonic landscape for the mic-side trio are guitar player Mike Lomerson, drummer Eric Walli, Nick Swanson and Jaheesh, all of whom turn in outstanding and varied performances. Serving as an actual foundation to the album’s sound rather than a token “backing band” for the vocalists, they provide an authenticity and organic nature to the album that differentiates Of Mice and Musicians as an actual band, rather than just rappers over live instruments. Ultimately, this is one of the biggest keys to the success of the group and the project as they avoid the gimmicky nature similar fusion groups have suffered from in the past.

“I’ve been known to breathe propane and sneeze sparks / catching sniffles over instrumentals till I blow the track apart” - Tony Bags, Chop It Up

The album opens with Joseph Pelione’s crisp vocals leading into intro verses from both Benjamin Miles and Tony Bags, but it’s on the album’s second track “Chop It Up” where we begin to feel the strength of both of the groups MC’s. Both Bags and Miles turn in outstanding verses over a sparse guitar riff bracketed by a set of DJ Premier-esque scratch cuts that stand in for a hook. This feels like textbook golden era Hip Hop as the cuts declare “I still believe in vinyl” and Pelione sings lovingly about timing marks on records.

Lead single “Summertime” follows, and is a bouncy take on the classic “Summerjam Anthem” format as the group playfully personifies and subsequently fantasizes about killing “Old Man Winter”; a pitch that will absolutely resonate with any Michigan native.

“Sugar in The Raw” begins to really find it’s stride with “Any Day”, a heavily reggae influenced track that opens with a blistering verse from Tony Bags and an equally impressive second stanza from Miles that truly showcases the duo’s inherent chemistry as the verse formats echo one another perfectly.

Continuing the momentum build are back-to-back solo tracks by Bags and Miles where they’re able to stretch their legs a bit further than their previous single verse confines. “Lou Dobs” finds Benjamin Miles spitefully informing the mass media that, “You can’t scare me!”. It feels easily like the most “Detroit” moment” on the album as Miles dismissively eviscerates transparent attempts at fear mongering.

Switching gears, Tony Bags follows with “In The Flesh”, a thoughtful storytelling track told from the POV of damaged and flawed artists who find their release in their artform. It’s a powerful and honest piece of songwriting that will stay with the listener for some time after it’s over.

Following “In The Flesh” is the album’s one misstep, “Too Far”, which feels more like a song the band wrote for one another than for public release. It’s catchy and solidly written, but thematically feels out of place. It’s a minor stumble however which leads to the high point of the entire record, “She Said”.

“There’s no saving her, either you enable her / or feel her tongue razor till you’re forced to walk away from her” - Benjamin Miles, “She Said”

“She Said” is easily the most personal moment on the album and features a hauntingly well sung chorus/bridge over a 70’s era sounding guitar riff. Benjamin Miles turns in an early contender for “Verse Of The Year”, effortlessly distilling the complexities of a relationship being torn apart by dependency, entitlement, hopelessness, and obligation into 16 bars. Importantly, he avoids the trap of writing in a forced false catharsis which could’ve ruined the entire song. It’s an absolute achievement in songwriting and arrangement, and the most “rewindable” moment on the entire album.

“Sugar In The Raw” represents an important and substantial piece of growth for Of Mice and Musicians. Their maturation as a group, as songwriters, and musically results in an outstanding album with an exceptional amount of replay value. It manages to echo the best parts of its many influences without making the mistake of mimicking them. Amidst a thriving and vibrant music scene they’ve managed to find their own sound and the work they’ve done to perfect it has resulted in album that will appeal to and resonate with a huge cross-section of listeners.

“Sugar In The Raw” is slated for release mid to late summer 2016. Keep up with Of Mice and Musicians on their Facebook Page, and review their previous album “Bottles & Bones” on Bandcamp here.

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