Sunday, March 11, 2007
Pleasures & Treasures: Sic Alps at the end of the rainbow
Pleasures & Treasures
Animal Disguise Records
Rating: 7.5 out of 10
A month or so ago on a very cold Saturday morning, I was combing the new releases section at A.K.A. Music, my favorite record-buying spot in Philly. Under my right arm, was already a stack of listening that I was set on buying that day so I was almost ready to pay and take off. But, then I saw Pleasures & Treasures, the full length album from San Francisco’s Sic Alps: the image of a rusting VW van sitting atop a brown and green patch of grass, the name SIC ALPS crudely spray-painted on the van’s scabbed exterior. There had to be something to that cover, so I added the CD to my stack and brought it straight to the horn-rimmed record nerd behind the cash register. While filing through the day’s finds, he pulled out the Sic Alps CD I had and went on a spiel that lasted about 5 seconds but felt like 5 minutes: “Aw, dude…this is great, man. You’re gonna love this!” I was happy to hear that.
At first listen, I wasn’t sure what to make of Sic Alps and this 26-minute ode to dirty jams and reverb, but I just kept listening and it started making sense. Pleasures & Treasures is laced with too much 90s-era alterna-complacency to be a straight-up psychedelic throwback, but its folk influence cements its 60s sensibilities. Sic Alps’ Mike Donovan, Matthew Hartman, Bianca Sparta (no longer with the band) and Adam Stonehouse (also no longer with the band) seem to be rebuilding a spirit that once enlivened the hopefuls who may’ve inhabited that beat up van years ago. It’s not peace and love necessarily, but it’s all about the possibilities out there on those American roads…or in their case, the “Semi-Streets.”
Pleasures & Treasures on the surface sounds as minimal and haphazard as you can get, overwhelmed at points by feedback and effects. The recording is raw, almost too raw. Old school hard-core bands with little or no budget have been able to achieve sounds cleaner than those found here, but it’s probable that Sic Alps had that in mind. Vocalist Mike Donovan is like Lou Reed in slow motion, strumming along with a sleepy dissatisfaction that conjures up brief images of morning dreams between alarm clock bleeps. When the album’s first track, “Battle of Breton Woods,” begins to fill up sound voids with static after the first couple vocals are expelled, it’s more than just a mere hint as to what your ears will be feeding on for the next half hour.
Experimenting with reverb like it was an additional member of the band, Sic Alps play it up on the otherwise folk-based “I Know Where the Madness Goes” and the tom-heavy “I Am Grass,” both songs erupting into aural fields of airwave noise and heightened volume. In “Morning Waltz,” the song gets lost in the noise, making momentary lapses into being and then fading under the weight of static. “Caro” and “The Wanderings of Our Drummer Through Hell” are both exercises in juxtaposing excessive percussion with unorganized sounds. “The Wanderings of Our Drummer Through Hell” reminds me of “ESP,” the opening track on Jimi Hendrix’s Axis: Bold As Love where his guitar feedback sounds like it’s coming and going as if he’s stuck on a merry-go-round. Imagine that with drums.
But, despite the feedback playing a prevalent roll in deconstructing songs or substituting songwriting for the sake of experimentation, the album hits strides. “Down Comes the Perm” and the fascinating “Semi-Streets” both exude the sort of hard rock disillusionment indicative of a generation that wants to break away from the confines of…well, just about everything. There’s an attitude on display here that recalls the proto-punk days of The Velvet Underground and The Stooges, an attitude that somehow managed to make itself relatively scarce during the onset of “garage” bands that were hitting the airwaves only a couple years ago. The lonely strumming of “ERQ” and heavy crawl of “Surgeon and the Slave” don’t necessarily forsake the ‘tude, but seem to revel in sorrow and complacency. “Reconnectionland” experiments a bit with percussion and solos with a feedback whine. Ending the album, “Stories” charges back with a hard rock stride but makes it melt momentarily into high-pitched refrains of the song’s title before trailing off and ending the album, setting the sun on the traveling VW.
Now, this album doesn’t really count as a new release, but I want to give the album some ink. So minimal is their coverage and exposure, I had to write the band to get some information on the album. I can’t even find them on Amazon. And, I find it rather admirable that, despite this lack of promotion and exposure, they deleted their Myspace page because they found fault with the “crappy ads, Madonna videos, and the fine print about them owning your tunes, etc.” That’s balls.
I’m hoping that whoever reads this feels compelled to give Pleasures & Treasures a try. Through its nostalgic and unique take on garage, psychedelia, folk and even grunge to an extent, I think Sic Alps capture a spirit that American music is either missing or avoiding completely. It would be nice to get some of that back.
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