Behind any great rock band is a great drummer carrying the beat. Or, in this case, inside one great drummer was an equally great songwriter waiting to break out. Singing drummers are a rarity, and it’s rarer still that one should break away as a solo lyricist. But one such rhythm maker has done just that: Justin Sullivan, who for the last two decades was a touring drummer with bands like Ringers, Worriers and Kevin Morby’s the Babies, is making his full-length debut as Night Shop with the warmly astute In the Break, a follow-up to his self-titled EP from 2017. An uncomplicated trapse into folk rock, In the Break isn’t an album meant for picking apart; rather, it’s already cozily knit together, ready for the listener to climb inside and stay awhile.
In the Break may be uncomplicated, but it’s not slack. Sullivan balances warm palpability with tight songwriting, resulting in an easy-going batch of brainy rock songs. The album’s lead-off track and first single, “The One I Love,” is a great introduction to Sullivan’s dry wit and spirited folk leanings. Sullivan sounds a lot like Kevin Morby on the song, a reasonable likening considering Morby’s label imprint, Mare Records, is responsible for In the Break’s release, and the two have spent a lot of time on the road together. Both singers have similarly sandy voices and employ lots of wordplay, but Sullivan occupies a more smart-alecky headspace. “Well you talk about love like you’re headed into battle,” he sings. “Oh little buddy, don’t forget your rattle.”
Perhaps this is too grand a comparison, but “The One I Love” recalls another great album opener: Bob Dylan’s “Like A Rolling Stone.” Much like that 1965 hit, “The One I Love” is full of toe-tap-inducing tambourine, sassy critiques and carefree ramblings. Dylan asked, “How does it feel/ to be on your own/ with no direction home?” while Sullivan, also working in the second person point of view, warns “You’re heading into trouble now.”
Like his lyrically talented predecessors Kurt Vile, Courtney Barnett and Morby, Sullivan is a whiz at artfully emphasizing the mundane. He finds the magic in lazy all-nighters and long drives, the worth in evening commutes and red light respites. In the Break, like its title suggests, is an album for in-between moments, for lunch time listening and morning coffee sipping. The album’s soothing title track finds Sullivan amused by small, usually unnoticeable spaces: “Somewhere in the margins I can see it clear/ where everything is motion and I’m not here,” he sings. Later, he worries he’s missing the delight in the everyday: “Is it all just passing over my head?/ Is it all just something I don’t understand?” In the Break begs us to seek life’s allure when we’re both on and off-the-clock.
Sullivan crafts a clever love song in the album’s half-way marker, “You Are the Beatles.” Some of the record’s meatiest guitar riffs lope along as he sings such swoon-worthy lines as “You are the voice in my head that says it can be done.” Later, he spaces out on “Here with Me Now,” benefiting from a psychedelic guitar solo, robust keys and Meg Duffy’s (Hand Habits) romantic harmonies. He also echoes an all-too familiar feeling of rural living: “Well there’s not much to do in this town at night.”
Sullivan’s first solo LP is a reminder that there’s nothing wrong with a little dusty, relaxed rock ‘n’ roll. It asks also, as a rule, that we pay more attention to drummers—you never know when one might break away and write a stellar album all on their own.