Sic Alps

(Copyright © 2010 Piero Scaruffi | Legal restrictions )

Pleasures And Treasures (2006), 7/10
U.S. EZ (2008), 5/10
Napa Aslyum (2011), 6.5/10
Sic Alps (2012) , 5/10

Sic Alps, formed in San Francisco in 2004 by guitarist Mike Donovan and drummer Matthew Hartman, spent four years releasing only lo-fi singles and EPs, later compiled on A Long Way Around To A Shortcut (Animal Disguise, 2008 - Drag City, 2010) except for their first single Semi Streets (2004), an acid pow-wow dance of sorts. The B-side of that single contains the distorted ballad Brill Building, and two pieces of musique concrete (Social Strats and And What Came Next). The guitar was detuned garage-style on purpose. The EP Teenage Alps (2006) indulged in the hailstorm of distortion of When You Tell It, in the half-baked melody of Texas, in the new noise maelstrom C'mon Pup and in the nonsensical collage of Untitled. The EP The Soft Tour In Rough Form (2006) delivered another litany wrapped in sound effects (Arthur Machen), a sleepy singalong (Making Plans), the percussive Speeds and the lysergic lullaby Microcastle. The single Strawberry Guillotine (2007), a pre-shoegaze lament over wild guitar distortion, was backed with the grating noise of RATROQ and the martial ditty The Drake. The more "musical" EP Description Of The Harbor (2007) contains an obscure cover of The Strapping Fieldhands' Description of the Harbor and the cabaret-tish Love Is Strange. A few songs evoke (notably Who Has Time to Protest?) the tambourine-driven street chants of David Peel. The "band" excels at mimicking the upbeat sloppy garage-rock of the 1960s, like in A Story Over There and especially Message From the Law, falling halfway between the Velvet Underground and the Animals. Despite the amateurish approach, they are masters at combining archetypes of classic rock, like the Rolling Stones-ian riff and the Lou Reed-ian inflection of Bells.

An even more creative strand of psychedelic dementia surfaced on Pleasures And Treasures (Animal Disguise, 2006), featuring Bianca Sparta of Erase Errata and containing their first single Semi-Streets. The spaced-out and noisy chant Battle Of Breton Woods, the grotesquely deformed jingle Down Comes The Perm, the cacophonous Syd Barrett-ian blues I Know Where Madness Goes are appetizers for the gloriously incoherent anthem I Am Grass, worthy of the classics of the 1960s, and for the final bacchanal of Stories. The cosmic vignette E.R.Q., reminiscent of early Pink Floyd, and Surgeon And The Slave, which is the most linear melody on the album, reveal a friendlier side. The noisy fits of the early singles are reenacted in the industrial march of Caro and in the putrid miasma of Morning Waltz.

U.S. EZ (Siltbreeze, 2008) is a much more conventional album compared with the singles, EPs and the first album. Both the production and the performance are almost professional. The dirty analog feeling is mostly gone. Unfortunately, the creative exuberance has been greatly tamed too. Songs such as Massive Place and Bathman have lost the insane bite that made the duo great. For the first time one of their recordings contains (slow) songs that are plain boring (including the longest of them all, Everywhere There). Sing Song Waitress harks back to the Everly Brothers of the 1950s instead of the punks of the 1960s. The noisy interludes Put The Puss To Bed and N##JJ sound simply inept, the way the Beatles sounded when they tried to be experimental. Not surprisingly, the melodic Gelly Roll Gum Drop evokes precisely the age of silly Merseybeat ditties. Co/Ca (For P.A.) Bric Jaz (Reprise) Quai Des Orf‚vres They seemed poised to join the ranks of lo-fi pop a` la Guided By Voices (not a compliment).

The single L Mansion (Slumberland, 2009) seems to open a more radio-friendly phase.

After the vertical decline of U.S. EZ, the duo crafted an ambitious collection, Napa Aslyum (Drag City, 2010), packing 22 songs in just 47 minutes. The album is still littered with tedious litanies like Jolly but a bit of Barrett-ian madness is recovered for Eat Happy and Do You Want To Give $$?, while the slow-burning blues Ranger and the distorted elegy Occult Display lay the foundations for the virulent, mean, jagged garage-rock of The First White Man To Touch California. The attempt to sound more accessible is still visible, but at least the melodic songs are indeed catchy (notably Cement Surfboard). And there is one piece that is a good match for the creative devastation of Pleasures And Treasures: Trip Train. The album could have been trimmed down to a (fabulous) six-song EP. As it is, it is weighed down by too much fluff.

The singles How Does Vedley Gather? (Drag City, 2012) and Pangea Globe (Drag City, 2012) were further demonstrations of Donovan's deconstructed folk-pop muzak. Inevitably, what came after that was a rapid conversion to the methods and sounds of mainstream rock music on Sic Alps (Drag City, 2012), a collection of mellow, sleepy, polished, retro, harmless background music.

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(Copyright © 2010 Piero Scaruffi | Legal restrictions )
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