Aaron Frank is a swagger veteran.
Those staying in tune to the garage rock scene are well aware of Ty Segall and Thee Oh Sees’ recent quest for world domination. Over the past few years, these two artists have toured and released albums nonstop. Their massive contributions with Carrion Crawler and Sinners are sincerely applauded. Etc.
The same circles also includes singer-songwriter extraordinaire Mikal Cronin and lo-fi mastermind White Fence aka Tim Presley. Unfortunately, these names have received less attention than their more outgoing peers. Yet through their recent releases, it’s clear to see the kind of impact they’ve had on Segall and Oh Sees’ frontman John Dwyer. In a strange way, Cronin and Presley balance out the spectrum of modern California garage rock, with Cronin offering up the basic template for much of the songwriting style, conveniently based on stoner rock, Black Flag-era punk and Laurel Canyon folk.
Presley’s position is a bit more nebulous and difficult to define, but his influence on production style and tone is obvious. That’s not to say that the fuzz you hear in Segall’s new band Fuzz all came straight from Presley, but the sort of brash, uncompromising style you hear on White Fence’s latest two albums, Cyclops Reap and Live From San Francisco, is one in the same.
Cyclops Reap is Presley’s third official album under the White Fence moniker, and is largely a continuation in the development of an under-appreciated bedroom musician, content with scrappy recordings and sampling himself on drums. The achievement in songwriting growth is laudable, but to hear these songs blown out with a full band and strained to their fullest extent is quite another story. On Cyclops Reap, Presley sounds like a broken toy soldier. On Live In San Francisco, he’s Dirty Harry, blasting holes in any yuppy or neon-clad hipster that crosses his path.
When Dwyer first announced the Live In San Francisco album series on his Castle Face label a few months ago, it was simply something I noted in passing. Glossy, over-produced recordings had given live albums a bad name in my book, and I was all but out of patience. Luckily, the Spotify alert for White Fence: Live In San Francisco came as I was two glasses in on some premium Kentucky bourbon, so I figured what the hell?
Some albums are okay to listen to while you’re drinking, but there are some that feel practically made for drinking (i.e. most of Thee Oh Sees catalog), and this is one of them. The fact that it was recorded in San Francisco, a city that subsists on craft beer, wine and medical marijuana, is only one aspect. Moreover, it’s the way Presley’s vocal inflection, guitar effects and rambunctious demeanor come through on the analog recording, giving a second life to songs.
Live In San Francisco sounds like something I’d find on a friend’s mixtape in junior high: rebellious, timeless and extremely compelling. The album even starts off with Presley offering a warning amid screaming crowd members, “Don’t nobody say anything you’ll regret.” A 12 song collection of the best of White Fence’s catalog follows, bolstered all the more by a talented rhythm section and two backup guitar players.
The first three songs blend together in a haze of thrash and distortion, accented by low-end bass and hard-pounding hits from drummer Nick Murray. Melody sticks out a place as the sober driver on the album, keeping things on course while Presley dives headfirst in 60s psychedelia with several astounding guitar solos. The set slows down a bit by the time “The Pool” rolls around, and for the remainder of the album, similar waves follow: hedonistic euphoria capped off with melodic bliss.
Through this one album, you somehow become familiar with all of the current dominating Bay Area archetypes: the trust funder blowing his parents’ Cisco money at the bar, the aspiring homeless musician who somehow scored a free ticket and the working class vinyl collector just looking to see a good show. Through Presley’s muffled vocals and guitar effects, you hear everything San Francisco ever was and wanted to be. “Pink Gorilla,” with its searing opening riff, does an excellent job of encapsulating Bay Area psychedelic culture, both classic and contemporary.
Capturing a particular feeling, time and place is what art is all about. Sure, we all hold out for something groundbreaking that will lend new meaning to our complicated existence, but having something to transport us from our current malaise is just as important. As a child of the Baby Boomers, there was no place more idealized in my adolescence than San Francisco. On this album, Presley is showing us what the city is and used to be, and it should give us cause to think of just where it’s going.