September 20, 2012

Douglas Martin is to garage rock what water is to rave-ups.

Start with the name. Sic Alps. “Sic” could mean “ill” as in “cool.”  But it can also just be improper spelling. Maybe that makes more sense considering they take 60s garage-rock and guitar-pop songs and intentionally disfigure them. Their instruments sounding like poorly functioning industrial machines.

That’s not to say they’re unmusical, it’s more of an act of deconstruction. While he’s known for tearing down traditional rock instrumentation and rebuilding it with the parts in different places, Mike Donovan knows his way around a killer pop melody. 2008’s U.S. EZ was full of art-damaged noise interludes, but it also had “Gelly Roll Gum Drop,” a rollicking number reminiscent of when rock ‘n roll was influenced by R&B and not allowed on radio because it was still mainly played by black people.

But when The New San Francisco captured the imagination of garage-rock lovers worldwide, its pioneers were at first nowhere to be found and then resurfaced with the pretty-good-but-far-too-meandering Napa Asylum. With more and more bands warping the time-honored Nuggets sound beyond recognition in exciting ways– not to mention putting out multiple LPs in a single year– Napa, like most double-albums, demanded too much time from a populace being fed dozens of records that mercifully cut things off around the half-hour mark. It was also about as inconsistent as James Harden’s stat sheet. Maybe a fro-hawk/Grizzly Adams beard combo would have saved the album.

The first thing you hear on Sic Alps’ self-titled fifth album is an acoustic intro and woozy violins. It honestly could have gone either way on the taste scale but mercifully is a lead-in to a breezy stomper, catchier and fuller-sounding than most anything on Napa Asylum. “Glyphs” is a crash-course in everything Sic Alps does right: Crisp-but-grimy production, Donovan’s distinctively pained vocals, irregular guitar phrasing in the verses, and a stupendously acid-fried guitar solo. It’s a perfect opener in a completely different way than their last perfect opener, U.S. EZ‘s “Massive Place.” While the latter takes it to the hole without giving a shit if you’re in the way, the former steps slightly to the right and sinks the seven-foot jumper.

(As you can probably tell by my analogies at this point, I’m having NBA season withdrawals.)

The high points of Napa Asylum like “Cement Surfboard” and “Country Medicine” were laidback and coasting, and a lot of the energy on Sic Alps provides music of the same atmosphere. “Lazee Son” and “Thylacine Man” are acoustic numbers that are striking in their stark performance. Donovan also shows a profoundly melancholy side on the closing one-two of “Rock Races” and “See You on the Slopes,” with its respective swelling string arrangements and barebones piano. “Maturity” is a word that seems hazardous to the very notion of garage-rock– where anybody could get away with exclusively singing about pizza or covering the Muppet Babies theme song— but Donovan explores this rarely-tapped vein with a surprising amount of grace.

Of course, gaining a newfound grown-up side doesn’t mean Donovan has to stop producing bangers. “Polka Vat” has a piano-bolstered chorus any rocker in their twilight years would be thrilled to write, but also has the benefit of being incredibly visceral. “Drink Up!” is a clanging shuffler in 6/4 time worthy of the exclamation point in its title and will likely serve as a great point in their live set for patrons to hoist their Tecate tall boys above their heads.

Usually the talking point of a garage band’s first foray into the studio goes in the opening paragraph instead of the opening one, but that goes to show how little that fact matters on Sic Alps. Donovan and his crew haven’t lost their sense of grit or adventurousness even in the face of mellower songs, string trios, or more expensive microphones. In fact, those things just emboldened Donovan’s songwriting. Sometimes getting older doesn’t mean getting softer. Sometimes it means getting smarter.


MP3: Sic Alps-“Glyphs”

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