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Sic Alps
Napa Asylum Barnaby Smith , January 28th, 2011 07:12

One of the general edicts for bands that are so-called 'noise', 'lo-fi' or indeed 'scuzz', is that either through deliberate design or their own limitations, melody and the true notion of a pop song is alien to them. Some examples might be Times New Viking, No Age and Wavves, where admittedly breathtaking overlapping noise largely overshadows any hints of structure underneath. The Sic Alps vision, presented here on an exhausting double album, transcends all that; the songwriting team of Matt Hartmann and Mike Donovan are expert creators of short, simple tunes that are immediately evocative and emotional, yet they are rough round the edges to the point that their music is almost only edges, so to speak.

Sic Alps' re-emergence - with a new bassist and a new label after a two-year gap since 2008's U.S. Ezalbum - came to the attention of UK audiences last year when they supported Pavement at one of their 'comeback' shows at Brixton Academy. They seemed to complement the veterans more than the other support acts Wooden Shjips, Broken Social Scene and The Clean, as they certainly hold the Malkmus aesthetic of not letting something as banal as accessibility get in the way of the wilful obtuseness of the artist. In nearly every song on Napa Asylum something clear, crisp and concise is trying to emerge, only to be warped and subverted by the Sic Alps filter that imbues most of them with malcontent and a sense of brutal indifference.

The combination is frankly sensational. A better album opener than 'Jolly' will surely be impossible to find this year, a lazy and mournful track with macabre muffled backing vocals. Other examples of their compositional talents include 'Country Medicine', which were it not for the primitiveness of the recording could have been an outtake from early Bright Eyes. 'Do You Want To Give $$?' is a cross between Neil Young circa Tonight's The Night and early Nirvana demos. Best of all is 'Zeppo Epp', a song reportedly about an anonymous Midwesterner driving into the American wilderness never to return, containing an infectious and delicious guitar hook. This loveliest tune is immediately followed by 'Trip Train', one of the examples of unbridled noise on the album – Sic Alps' feet remaining firmly in both camps.

Sic Alps hail from San Francisco, where pared-down garage-influenced rock has taken some interesting turns in recent years. An immediate comparison with Sic Alps is Thee Oh Sees, for whom Syd Barrett is an obvious influence. Barrett looms large over Napa Asylum too, but whereas Thee Oh Sees might take their cue from Barrett's whimsical, Romantic side, Sic Alps seem enriched by the paranoia and confusion in his solo work, with that same pleasantly half-arsed approach to recording. There is something life-affirming and positive amid the layers of Sic Alps' music but ultimately nihilism and apocalypse are the pervading themes on Napa Asylum, both of which when presented with equal doses of delicacy and madness, are all the more affecting.