Tuesday, September 9, 2008
Sic Alps Take Flower Power to New Heights
As much as I really wanted to love Sic Alps last year, after the all the hype that snowballed into the Description of the Harbor breakthrough near the year's end, I must admit their recordings weren't marriage material for me. Astute readers will note that I placed the "Strawberry Guillotine" single on my best-of-07 list. Well, looking back, it's not all that great of a 7", and I'll admit to listing it because of the incredible live set I had seen a few weeks before that list was pieced together. I liked Sic Alps and thought they were brilliant live, and Harbor was nice enough, but let's just say I wasn't head over heels for the band's records.
Enter U.S. EZ on, you guessed it, Siltbreeze. Leave it to Tom Lax to get the best effort out of his athletes. I've seen him during practice and the man is nothing short of a drill sergeant. You know Sgt. Hartman, from Full Metal Jacket? Well, Lax makes that character look like Beetle Baily. But his teams know that all the hard work pays off. They sign on the Siltbreeze dotted line, endure training camp and eventually hole-up in a studio until a masterpiece is ready for the boss.
Mission accomplished. Sic Alps have eased into a recorded sound all their own, one that is noticeably more loose than their contemporaries but packs no less of a punch. Their live shows are some of the loudest I've seen in the past few years, but this record relies less on the volume of their sets (and previous records) and puts on a pedestal their brilliant song-craft. The palette is simple and pure: guitars, drums, voice, some bits of piano. The warmth of the recording tells me not a whole lot of overdubs were used. I could be wrong. It just feels like the rooms they record in are a member of the band, as they implement echo, distortion and feedback into the recordings as meticulously as (sometimes more so) any note struck.
The songs alone are surprisingly original creations, surprising because this genre of music usually relies on a structure put in place over forty years back. Take the minute and a half-long "Bathman", which begins as an acoustic Lennonesque echo-laden lullaby, until, thirty seconds in, a transitional burst straight out of Who Sell Out sets into motion frenetic pounds and squawks for the next minute. Then comes "Everywhere, There" a song as beautiful as leaves falling or clouds drifting, but is taken to new heights with their fuzzily loose execution. That it rivals the heart-wrenching renditions The Band performed of Dylan songs says enough. Songs this sweet have never graced the Siltbreeze racks. And there's the whimsical "Gelly Roll Gum Drop" a nod to the classic '66 psychedelic era in Britain, with it's stuttering word-play and one-note piano clanging along, it would make Kevin Ayers proud.
That time and place, mid-60's Britain, is obviously their inspiration for much of U.S. EZ, right down to the newspaper headline-themed artwork found inside. Tin Pan Alley on acid in Autumn is the feel, and you could very well file it next to such classics as Something Else or Soft Machine Vol. 1. But filing this one away is not on the minds of anyone who's heard this magnificent record, which when it's all said and done, is likely the best album you'll hear all year.
Go buy it straight from the Laxman himself at S i l t b r e e z e d o t c o m.