Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Joseph's Picks Of The Week 12/16/11 - Ty Segall and Sea Lions

On SINGLES 2007-2010 Ty Segall demonstrates that raggedy, crudely recorded garage-punk hunch will never be out of style. And while most of the notable examples in this loose genre flame bright but brief, as the title of this 2LP one-stop shopper’s paradise amply testifies that’s thankfully not the case here. Instead, this tireless wunderkind employs low fidelity, rudimentary yet catchy riffing and a judicious mixture of snot and erudition to display his solid knowledge of just how this stuff is supposed to be done. Part of the mythology of the garage resides in how an abundance of enduring records have seemed to explode from the cradle of its vast whatsis with a bare minimum of fuss and perfectionism; in other words, sort of the opposite of bebop, prog or math-rock. I’m not really interested in arguing against this notion, but I do broach the subject since sequential listening to SINGLES really brings the concept of garage-savantism into question, at least as applied to its creator. In this he’s comparable to his much missed compadre and touring partner Jay Reatard; like his late friend, Segall not only possesses a nicely tweaked lone-wolf methodology, but also has songs by the bushel. However, in true garage-punk fashion (particularly post-Mummies), songs aren’t what Ty Segall is about, at least not overtly. On the surface, it’s really more about the euphoria of simplicity aka the eternally hip trick of addition by subtraction and the sparks ‘n’ heat of a loose but shrewdly honed delivery and sound; right out of the starting gate the guy was swaddling his tunes in moves swiped from the twin founts of early art-punk and Killed By Death, with “Where We Go” blending the skuzzy production values and sheer-hell-of-it attitude that defines KBD staples like The Absentees’ “Tryin’ To Me With Me” with the screwy but smart extendedness of long-worthy Los Angelians Urinals or maybe even the contrarian kookiness of Benedict Arnold and the Traitors’ “Kill the Hostages”. Segall apprenticed in the cool if minor Cali outfits The Epsilons, Party Fowl and The Traditional Fools before really hitting his stride as a solitary operator and one probable reason for the qualitative upswing is his open knowledge of garage/punk/u-ground precedent. To bastardize Edmund Burke, actually knowing the past means you’re far less likely to regurgitate it as your own new thing. And if you do choose to repeat it, chances are the results will likely be far more individual and rewarding than disappointingly generic or otherwise by the numbers. As evidence, SINGLES corrals the spoils of Segall’s cover song exploits, featuring one borrowed tune on each of its four sides. Three of these nods are toward a wide breadth of worthy predecessors, namely Canadian proto-punk legends Simply Saucer, fringe-dwellers from the old, dangerous New York Chain Gang, and Detroit’s undisputed kingpins of low-fi punk snarl The Gories. The fourth cover is a nice take on a tune from San Fran contemporaries Thee Oh Sees from a split-single song-swap as exercise in mutual admiration. As snazzy as these four tracks are (the concentrated, truncated splat of Chain Gang’s “Son of Sam” in particular), it’s remarkable that in comparison to Segall’s original stuff they all fell like throwaways (in the best sense). Whether it’s the riffy bit of echo-laden street-punk swagger of “Sweets”, the giddy keyboard seasoned up-tempo bashing of “Skin”, or the urgent, increasingly unhinged velocity of “Booksmarts”, it’s quickly apparent that the best card in Segall’s hand is the material of his own design. And that’s just the early stuff. As he moves along, the ride reveals an appealing trajectory of development while detailing a capacity for weird tangents. The two elements in this equation are easily absorbed by the opposing faces of the “My Sunshine”/”Fuzzy Cat” single; the A side features a guitar hook of truly killer proportions integrated with vocalizing that’s quite inspired, the tune sounding somewhat like the road not taken (i.e. one that’s not a dead end) by the practitioners of prime-era Cali-beach punk. But “Fuzzy Cat” is a whole other bucket of willful eccentricity, feeling a whole lot like the vibe that would ooze from the cassette deck of an early ‘80s UK DIY home taper whose bedroom is completely plastered with wall-sized posters of John Entwistle. The Ox!!! And that’s far from all; the scaled down demos that populate much of sides 3 and 4 are a real treat. While “Lovely One” isn’t that divergent from the version found on ‘09’s LEMONS CD, it’s still a clinic in acoustic strum and multi-tracked vocal junk that smacks of the underfed, scarf-clad urban-urchins that just might’ve danced alongside bourbon-soaked sugar plums in the fitful dreams of the late Lester Bangs. Yowzers. Plus, “So Alone” collides tinny drum-box punk aesthetics into some cool Bo Diddley derived action before getting sloppily psychedelic at the end, and “Shoot You in the Head” so expertly combines the rigid thread of cheap rhythm tech with skuzzy stun-guitar ripping that I immediately started rifling around the house for my Metal Urbain reissues. Where o where did I file those things? Apparently not under the letter m. Cripes. For those already hepped to the goodness of Ty Segall, SINGLES 2007-2010 is an essential acquisition, since I doubt more than a tiny handful of rabid, rancid, anti-social wax collectors actually own all this material in non-digitally purloined form. But its four sides also serve as an expansive yet easily digestible introduction into this disheveled dude’s considerable musical heft, so if your interest is piqued by all means consider this an invitation.

One of the defining records of the ‘90s, particularly in indie-pop terms, was the compilation ONE LAST KISS, the inaugural release for the SpinART label and a document that helped to establish the parameters of a somewhat Anglophilic thread in the US division of what came to be known via K Records as the International Pop Underground. ONE LAST KISS sorta sat at the crossroads between the ‘80s progenitors of the movement (bands like Young Marble Giants and Talulah Gosh, the whole C-86 scene and the Sarah, Postcard and Creation labels for some examples) and the early-‘90s indie-pop explosion that came in its wake (an influx of grassroots imprints like Simple Machines, Slumberland and Pop Narcotic, a barrage of homemade cassette releases and racks stuffed full of fanzines like CHICKFACTOR, WRITER’S BLOCK and POPWATCH as just a tip of the iceberg). I’d bought KISS on a whim due to the inclusion of Velocity Girl, who’d previously knocked me out opening for Galaxie 500 at the old 9:30 Club (not to mention their 1990 Slumberland 7” “I Don’t Care If You Go” is an unimpeachable classic), but the whole disc hipped me with a quickness to fresh developments in the burgeoning underground pop discourse. I bring up ONE LAST KISS because after listening to Sea Lions’ new LP EVERYTHING YOU ALWAYS WANTED TO KNOW ABOUT SEA LIONS BUT WERE AFRAID TO ASK, I quickly came to the conclusion that any of the record’s 15 tracks could easily fit onto that compilation without the slightest tinge of dissonance in mood or texture.  Sea Lions, who hail from Oxnard CA but sound like they’ve been shaped by a grayer, far more damp climate, could be effectively summarized as a ripe blend of Brit-centric hyper-jangle and Calvin Johnson-approved love-rock. In fact, singer/guitarist/leader Adrian Pillado’s booming vocals are more than coincidentally similar to the seductive tones of Cal J’s vulnerable buzzsaw. But where most early K groups wielded a defiantly loose and instrumentally minimal approach, often consisting of just guitar, drums and vocals (or less) captured through production values that were blatantly direct (flip the switch and play, essentially), Sea Lions flaunt a fairly expansive and lush sonic palate. There are keyboards, shaking tambourines, toy instruments, backing vox and palpable studio finesse in the echo ‘n’ twee atmospheres it evokes. But guitar dominates everything on EVERYTHING, though as dyed-in-the-wool pop denizens distortion is avoided completely. However, it should be noted that the strings are frequently attacked with a gleeful ferocity that reveals the band members’ outgrowth from legitimately punkly concerns. If my praise for Sea Lions feels like a simultaneous damning of the band as a throwback, I’m afraid that’s off the mark. This type of u-ground pop has always been firmly rooted in the past, even when the music has been quite groundbreaking or eye-opening, Television Personalities’ “I Know Where Syd Barrett Lives” and Dolly Mixture’s cover of Smith’s “Baby It’s You” as just two instances that immediately spring to mind. And as unique as Beat Happening’s music actually was, the band were also undeniably extending ideas first proposed by the young Jonathan Richman (on the early stuff) and The Cramps (think JAMBOREE’s “Hangman” or DREAMY’s “Nancy Sin”, though that one’s also a Sinatra/Hazelwood trib). One of the frequent complaints I remember enduring from crabby old heads back in the ‘90s re: indie pop was that the scene was insufficiently invested in breaking ground in the bold manner of their ’80s forbearers like Sonic Youth, Mission of Burma and Dinosaur Jr. In contrast, ‘90s indie-pop often wore its influences on the sleeve, and was proud of it. In this sense Sea Lions’ disinterest in blazing stylistic trails is in true synch with their lineage, and this particular strain of inspired unoriginality is in my ear far preferable to the pastiche of likeably pleasant but frankly Johnny-Come-Lately ‘90s-isms of Yuck, for one example. Again, every note on the Sea Lions’ debut full-length platter resonates like it could be twenty years old, but the sly trick is that it’s in no way a foregone conclusion that it is(n't) twenty years old. So maybe the best way to describe EVERYTHING YOU ALWAYS WANTED TO KNOW ABOUT SEA LIONS BUT WERE AFRAID TO ASK (a nod to pre-angst Woody Allen?) is to call it a record of instantly timeless qualities. Much as I dig BAD PENNY by their label mates Spectrals (and I do dig it without reservation), from all the evidence to reach my ear thus far I’m willing to bet the house on Sea Lions as the one contempo indie-pop engine that could truly keep on truckin’ right down the track for the long haul. Slumberland Records' welcome second wind has exceeded all reasonable expectations; that is, like the discs from Spectrals, Weekend and Crystal Stilts, this Sea Lions slab is great as homemade gravy and easily the equal of anything the label released two decades back. If names like Honeybunch, Black Tambourine, Lorelei and Lilys mean anything to your discerning ear then I implore you not to sleep on this one.

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