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Sunburned Hand of the Man

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Boston-based collective Sunburned Hand of the Man represented New England's free rock contingency throughout the mid-'90s and the wooly freak folk era of the 2000s. Made up of a loose assemblage of like-minded musical wanderers, the project's lineup shifted with almost each of their frequent low-key releases, which were often issued in limited editions on CD-Rs through the band's Manhand label. Prolific output ranged from wild improvisatory freak-outs to more coherently sculpted material like 2007's Four Tet-produced outing Fire Escape. After slowing considerably throughout the start of the 2010s, Sunburned's momentum picked back up in 2019, as they gradually ramped up production of minor releases as well as more fully realized albums like 2021's Pick a Day to Die. Sunburned Hand of the Man formed in Boston in 1994, growing out of a trio named Shit Spangled Banner, and featured John Moloney and Robert Thomas. According to Moloney, Shit Spangled Banner was conceived as "a cross between the Melvins and Sonic Youth," but the group were fast picking up a host of collaborators who would show up at their loft, and their sound soon began to incorporate everything from early American folk music to drone, free jazz, space rock, and funk. After one release, 1996's No Dolby No DBX (issued as part of Ecstatic Yod's Ass Run series), the band changed their name to Sunburned Hand of the Man, with Moloney and Thomas guiding an ever-shifting lineup. A string of self-released CD-Rs followed, including Mind of a Brother (1997) and Piff's Clicks (1998). With 2001's Jaybird, the group reached a new pinnacle, forging their disparate elements into a distinct (if not complete) sounding collection. By this time, similar acts such as Jackie-O Motherfucker, Tower Recordings, and the No-Neck Blues Band (who are somewhat a sister group to Sunburned) were also coming into their own and gaining critical applause. The term "free folk" started popping up in an attempt to describe these bands, and Sunburned were seen as leaders (or at least co-leaders) of a musical movement of sorts, one that had its antecedents in Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music as much as in avant-jazz and noise groups. The band continued to refine and expand their sound on CD-R and vinyl-only releases such as 2001's Wild Animal, 2002's Headdress, and 2003's Trickle Down Theory of Lord Knows What. Each release was a rough but often brilliant indicator of where Sunburned were headed, rather than finished statements of where they had been. In August 2003, the profile of the band was raised considerably when they were featured on the cover of the respected British music magazine Wire, appearing above the headline "New Weird America." Sunburned Hand of the Man thrived in the mid- to late 2000s, releasing a seemingly endless flow of limited-edition releases and live documents, as well as more considered records like 2005 double album Wedlock and 2007's Z. The collective teamed with Four Tet's Kieran Hebden for both 2007's Fire Escape and 2010's A, adding a more ambient texture to their often uncontainable free sprawl. The group's output slowed somewhat afterwards, but they stayed semi-active throughout the 2010s, releasing the full-length album Headless in 2019 as something of a return to form. Frequent Sunburned guitarist Marc Orleans died on June 25, 2020, at the age of 52. The next year, the band returned with Pick a Day to Die, an album edited together from unreleased material recorded between 2007 and 2017.
© Jason Nickey /TiVo
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