, September 27th, 2012 09:42
Despite this being their fifth LP, there is a good argument that Sic Alps aren't really an albums band. Since their last record, the superb Napa Asylum, released only last year, they have put out a slew of 7” (including the eccentric and exotic 'Vedley') as well as live recordings available on the band's website. Despite this impressive fertility, a full Sic Alps album still seems like an event: that this unkempt foursome have deemed these 10 songs as representing a certain coherent statement is reason to pay serious attention.
Napa Asylum in some ways was Sic Alps hitting the big time. It saw them on new label Drag City, it received good reviews everywhere and allowed them to enjoy some of the biggest tours of their career. And it was a fascinating record, a glorious 22-track monster that defined their effortless grasp of both rough, subterranean garage rock and harmony and melody that with a brighter sheen of production, and a less lazy swagger, would basically make them a power-pop band.
Sic Alps, however, is different. Here we have merely 10 tracks, all considered and a little less urgent, and with a certain softness that didn't exist before. This is largely down to instrumentation. The eponymous first track begins with the jangle of a 12-string guitar and some crisp and mournful strings. It's all a bit Will Oldham until the strained holler of that great veteran of weird San Francisco rock & roll, Mike Donovan, kicks in. His vocals remain the consistent scrappy heart of Sic Alps even as the sound around him evolves.
Sic Alps doesn't really return to that alt-folk territory, instead offering one morsel of rough-edged pop songwriting perfection after another. 'God Bless Her, I Miss Her' could easily be from one of the 'lost garage classics' from the late sixties that Drag City periodically dregs up. As could the hugely catchy 'Moviehead'.
That's about as danceable as it gets, with slower acoustic numbers such as 'Lazee Son' and 'Thylacine Man' breaking things up beautifully amid a number of songs that exhibit some breathtakingly savage/beautiful guitar racket. 'Wake Up, It's Over II', among the record's finest songs, has a spellbindng minute-and-a-half outro that is easily Sic Alps' crowning moment.
Perhaps the most interesting track, however, is 'Rock Races'. While Syd Barrett has long been cited as a particularly strong Sic Alps influence, this delicate and shimmering track evokes the same atmospheric haze as post-Barrett, pre-Dark Side of the Moon Pink Floyd. Sic Alps' take on Rick Wright's cultivated piano is at the heart of a track that his roots firmly in Obscured By Clouds and Meddle (indeed, the former seems to be enjoying a certain reappraisal around northern Californian parts, what with Carlton Melton's vicious cover of 'When You're In).
Sic Alps aren't really a 'slacker' band and don't really fit with the label of lo-fi, even if their music is typically recorded primitively on antique gear. But there is a certain indifference to their own music that makes them the epitome of 'cool'. Each of these songs has an emotional resonance and touching prettiness that is only casually and almost grudgingly revealed amid distortion and largely inaudible lyrics. Sic Alps, a taut and absorbing listen, appears to have a mission to take conventional beauty and make it something more interesting by fraying its corners and smearing it with a little dirt. There is nothing Sic Alps could have done to create a better, more delicious sweet and sour record.