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"Napa Asylum"

Sic Alps – Napa Asylum
27 January 2011, 11:00 Written by

San Francisco lo-fi basement recording artists Sic Alps have been notable by their absence for over two years now. For a previously prolific act (recording and releasing furiously between 2006 and 2008), that has been quite a gap. Apparently using the time to “slow way down and … reflect”, they return now with this collection of 22 tracks, with themes including re-incarnation, magic and schizophrenia.

At least, that’s what the accompanying PR blurb tells us the tracks are about… In practice, however, one of the first things observable about the music is just how difficult it is, throughout, to make out what words are being sung. The resolutely lo-fi production values bathe the whole album in a kind of wash of low-level background hum (‘Country Medicine’, ‘Trip Train’), fuzz, and occasional crackle and reduce the vocals to a kind of deep, just-out-of-reach buzz, echoing into that basement: amiably, but without anything much in the way of clarity.

Although the music is similarly affected, the resultant blurry, amorphous atmosphere lends a sort of underwater charm that is difficult to dislike. Tracks that work best are those that are gifted with the band’s knack for pulling off a simple tune with charm. ‘Cement Surfboard’ has a lovely kind of 60s naivety, as does ‘Saint Peter Writes His Book’ (a wonderful, Times New Viking reminiscent track), ‘Jolly’, ‘Occult Display’ – a garage/psych rock-alike number, and the engaged, energetic ‘The First White Man To Touch California Soil’. Other beguiling songs and tunes include the almost singalong ‘Ball of Fame’, the acoustic-guitar-in-an-empty-room ‘Wake Up, It’s Over’ and ‘Meter Man’, which starts out sugar sweet then turns in an enjoyably heavier/riffier second half.

The album is less successful at the points where it becomes vaguer, and less precise in its targets. The bumbling stoner/slacker aesthetic conveyed in lyrics (“sitting here, relaxing with my gear”) or song titles like ‘Trip Train’ and ‘Wasted At Church’ becomes a little irksome when translated into “will this do” half-realised sketches of tracks. ‘My My Lai’, for example, is little more than a desultory and seemingly random concatenation of percussive noises, piano chords and aimless riffs. ‘Wasted At Church’ and ‘March Of The Skins’ are more snippets than actual song/tracks, and there are similar elements even in some of the more fully-developed tracks like ‘Eat Happy’, or the slow, uncertain and diffuse ‘Super Max Lament On The Way’. The whine that sometimes creeps into the vocal (‘Super Max…’, ‘Country Medicine’) is less appealing than the sunnier, perkier tone elsewhere.

How best to summarise this album, then? Overlong? Certainly – in terms of the quantity of tracks alone, if not running time. Indulgent? Sketchy? In places, sure. Happily, though, there is enough lo-fi-pop-gold strewn through the murk to counteract these gripes. When Matt, Mike and Noel hit their stride – as they do for much of the album – such criticisms can be put to one side in favour of simple, uncomplicated enjoyment.

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