November 9, 2006

A Lo-Fi Fuzz That Fizzles

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The few critics that penned about The Hospital’s last full-length, I’ve Visited the Island of Jock and Jazz, took to opposite corners: “a refreshing direction in [garage] rock” or “incomprehensible mess.” Standing over that critical chasm is damn near impossible, so which is it? (I must say, I’ve crept into bed with the former.)
The Hospitals haven’t yet parted, but several of the members have been riding the scene ferris wheel out there in Calif. One lasting incarnation of “ex-” this and thats — the best by far — are the Sic Alps. Continuing in the tradition of The Hospitals, Sic Alps mix brutal fuzzy-riffs with Neolithic drum-thumping and black boxed vocals. But Sic Alps drag this formula into new territory on their first full-length, Pleasures and Treasures. By lowering the volume a tad and stretching the guitar-drum-vocal core into a laffy-taffy swirl of garage and psychedelia (see Nuggets box set) and The Dead C (see New Zealand), the Sic Alps produce a mightily refreshing sound.
Though reverb remains a precedent for Sic Alps, the punk crash suite that was Island of Jock and Jazz is tempered to form their calmer brand of Dust Bowl rock. Tracks like “Down Comes the Perm” and “I Know Where Madness Goes” are the album’s easiest-to-swallow aural pleasers: tainted blues rock marinated in warm fuzz. Other mid-tempo stompers — “Semi-Streets” in particular — are all swagger and grin, like a liquored Jagger. Usual frontman Adam Stonehouse slurs out demented lyrics into a dust cloud of guitars and cymbals. Sounds a bit dreary, I know, but the album is more sneering than sad-sacked, and sometimes wonderfully blissed out. Pleasures and Treasures may sound like a wholesale rejection of the clean and traditional — it’s part of the draw — but scraps of lo-fi nonsense and a drum interlude “through hell” confirm that the Sic Alps don’t wish to be taken entirely seriously.
I’d cast off some of their cacophony as studio detritus, because several songs could do without the weight, especially in light of the album’s meager (err, judicious?) half-hour running time. Overall, the efforts of studio rat Walter Weasel make “purposefully lo-fi” production sound like a wholly legitimate practice. There’s only a sliver of distinction between white noise and a sonic Jacuzzi, so bravo Walter.
Like The Hospitals, the Sic Alps aren’t riding any vanguard of the rock genre. But the band does operate on a genre tangent that’ll grab a small cadre of fans, from the alt-rockers to the noiseniks. The Sic Alps are like some can’t-beat-‘em-join-‘em middle ground. Throw Pleasures and Treasures into the background of a room and people might be tucking and rolling into the next, but played with a little forewarning – “please mind your ears” – then I’d expect smiles to creep up on more than a few faces. (Take note: mud rock mastermind Adam Stonehouse left Sic Alps for that ferris wheel after this album was recorded in 2005.)