Douglas Martin thinks San Franciscans have a right to be smug.
On the hilly streets of San Francisco, where album release schedules are presumably measured in dog years, local garage heroes Sic Alps were gone for what seemed like an eternity. In the year-and-a-half(!) since they released their “L Mansion“ single on Slumberland, hometown contemporaries Thee Oh Sees, The Fresh & Onlys, and Ty Segall released a combined seven full-lengths and triple that amount of seven- and twelve-inches, found the cure for cancer, and created a hybrid car that runs on empty potato chip bags. But with the demand for abrasive, medium-lo-fi psychedelic garage-rock at an unprecedented high (a genre for which U.S. EZ served as the early breakout, earning them a spot as Slitbreeze 2.0‘s marquee act after Matador picked up Times New Viking), Matthew Hartman and Mike Donovan picked the perfect moment to return to the party.
Putting the loads of money they’re making off of Joanna Newsom to good use, paramount indie label Drag City foots the bill for Napa Asylum, where Donovan and Hartman atone for the long gestation period with a pretty colossal 22-track effort, spread out over 47 minutes and four sides of vinyl. A pretty ambitious undertaking for a band whose compilation of a dozen-plus singles and EP’s, was the only thing that even came close to having such long a running time. But after about three or four years of indie-rockers feigning diffidence into tape recorders and stock copies of GarageBand– culminating with 2010’s year-long canonical reevaluation of Pavement (a band who made a very lucrative career from swelling slack indifference to biblical proportions– artists are switching their stance), suddenly, giving a shit is the new not giving a shit.
Though not as dense and monolithic as Newsom’s Have One on Me, Napa Asylum can feel like a slog at first listen. Though Donovan has always been a little stingy with chords and has frequently buried his sometimes-double-tracked vocals beneath a din of metallic reverb, clattering distortion, and Hartman’s dirty drums and bee-sting cymbals, nothing on this record is as immediately captivating as “Massive Place” (which is the exact musical equivalent of being repeatedly hit in the face with a trash can) or “Gelly Roll Gum Drop” (which, if not for all the art damage, could feasibly pass as an unreleased Beatles tune). Of course, there are early standouts like the sludgy and visceral “Trip Train” and the shuffling “Meter Man,“ but there are too many tunes that start on the same key, that amble along at the same tempo. And when considering busted blues dirges “Ranger,” “Country Medicine,“ and “Super Max Lament on the Way,” the languid pace is enough to lull a listener to sleep at points. After the end of my third listen, I was wholly prepared to write this album off as “dishwashing music for aging garage-punks”.
I’m not sure if a genre as dependent on immediacy and overturning everything that’s not nailed to the floor should be allowed to have “grower records,” but there is a point where Donovan’s songwriting just sneaks up on you entirely. The easygoing “Cement Surfboard” scales 60’s R&B to its most essential components while Donovan soulfully croons and cleverly shouts out the Jackson 5. The descending guitar line in “Saint Peter Writes His Book“ makes for a great counterpart to Donovan‘s cooing, while “Do You Want to Give $$” finds the duo holding back the urge to wholeheartedly rock out. The lack of aggression in the latter is a disappointment at first, but ultimately their restraint shows a commendable willingness to experiment with dynamics throughout the record. Acoustic ballad “Low Kid” is both quieter and more irresistible than a lot of the band’s prior output. The unfolding riff in “Zeppo Epp“ is a hook in itself. “The First White Man to Touch California Soil” finds them back in freewheeling mode, Hartman punishing his drum kit while Donovan thrashes away on guitar, on a song which is basically about colonial imperialism. It’s safe to say that neither your AP US History teacher nor The Decemberists has made the topic sound nearly as exciting.
And for the noiseniks concerned that the stringent focus on songwriting throughout Napa Asylum would quell their carnivorous appetite for feedback and distortion, Sic Alps have not abandoned their old tricks in favor of the new ones. They’ve just learned to both refine those tricks and apply them better to their songs. “Eat Happy” is a contented ballad that is bolstered by the squall running through its undercurrent, while the feedback piercing through the aforementioned “Ranger” accomplishes the same thing. While the noise exercises in “My My Lai” seem to be largely unnecessary, the awesomely-titled “Wasted at Church” plays like a haunted-house drone group setting up for a show in a seedy alley full of rats and muggers. The best of the instrumentals is “March of the Skies,” which ratchets the psych element always prevalent in Sic Alps’ music up a few notches by making guitars sound like sitars in a way that would make the ghost of George Harrison knocking on Donovan’s doorstep, asking for tips.
By the time laconic closer “Nathan Livingston Maddox” erupts into its noisy climax, the wide range of sounds on Napa Asylum could feel like the finish line of a marathon — the relieving moment of silence after the abrupt ending of a pretty overwhelming listen. But in the era of the quick digestion and premature evaluation of music, it’s refreshing– even kind of exhilarating– that Sic Alps would deliver a record so dependent on repeat listens to fully absorb its charms, a record that you have to spend time with in order to care about. Maybe we really have turned a corner, here. Maybe giving a shit really is the new not giving a shit.