Is this world big enough for two Sam Champions? The dual personas in question seem to think so, but in order for us to decide, let’s compare stats. The first Sam Champion — the real Sam Champion — is the openly gay weather anchor for Good Morning America whose mere birth name predestined him to forecast the weather, a man for whom only his golden blond hair could rival his sunny predictions. The other Sam Champion is a noisy Brooklyn-based quartet. The reason this foursome opted for the weatherman’s namesake may forever be a mystery, but we can only assume that it was more a playful nod at Champion’s clean-cut, impeccably polished image and Nordic good looks — the antithesis to any working band playing gigs out of their bus — than a decision banking on the sheer novelty of Sam Champion being America’s most recognizable gay weatherman. Because that would be totally uncool.
Having said that, Sam Champion’s sophomore album, Heavenly Bender, is a worthy rollick. Rooted in the kind of garage-rock jam-heavy sound that bands like Built to Spill and Pavement mapped out in the early to mid-’90s, Heavenly Bender is full of exuberantly catchy sing-along anthems. Kicking off with “Like a Secret,” lead guitarist Sean Sulivan’s opening lick seems to be culled straight from the almighty canon of lo-fi garage rock, and singer/guitarist Noah Chernin offers up an equally hummable chorus of “You need it like a secret.” (A nod to Built to Spill’s breakthrough album, Keep It Like a Secret, perhaps?)
“Be Mine Everyone” follows in this vein, an urgent number with yet another killer riff. This time, the band echoes “Insistor” by Tapes ‘n Tapes. On the title track, the melodies and vocal arrangements recall the Shins’ “Past and the Pending.” And if the comparisons seem to be piling up at this point, well, that makes sense. For as good as the bulk of Heavenly Bender is, the overall experience feels vaguely familiar. While Sam Champion is undoubtedly composed of faithful disciples of indie-rock, Heavenly Bender ultimately frustrates in that it tends to come up just short of sounding like it came from a singularly identifiable band.
This isn’t always the case. Tracks like the fifty-six-second “Space Heater,” the unexpectedly elegant “Lorraine” and “You Can’t Stop,” with its frenetic time changes and murky piano thumping, show a band willing to explore. The reward is a band carving out a sound all its own. But that nagging feeling that we’ve heard this before too often overshadows these bursts of originality.
Which takes us back to the question at hand: Is there room for two Sam Champions in this world? Time will tell, but judging by the fact that there hasn’t been a lawsuit yet, things are looking sunny for both.