As with the psychedelic movement’s drift away from density among many of its original hitmakers, so with its followers. The back-to-the-country appeal by 1969 or 1970 lured the Grateful Dead and the Byrds away from West Coast urban pressures towards gentler pastures. They stripped down their lysergic or cerebral textures and let the fresh air in.
Darker My Love does the same on their third album. Their self-titled debut marked a neo-psych record that rivaled the best of the past 20 years of musicians who expand on what that decade started; 2 bettered the first album by a diversity that recalled late Beatles blended with a crunchier, heavier space rock and a post-punk atmosphere. This had been boosted by some of the band being recruited mid-tour when the Fall took them on as their backing band after, them being the Fall, most of its members left suddenly near the terminus of a 2006 tour in Darker My Love’s hometown of Los Angeles.
As with Angelenos cosmic cowboys Beachwood Sparks and 60’s garage-protopunk revivalists Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, Darker My Love shifts away from drone and depth in their third outing. Like those two predecessors, however, this marks a retreat rather than an advance. This album opens with “Backseat”, a lively ditty which sounds so much like the Dead that listeners may think it a bonus track from a reissue of Touch of Gray The pace steadies as seven out of 11 tracks continue in this mode, which will please anyone wondering if American Beauty or Workingman’s Dead may need performers able to deliver a note-for-note re-creation for a tribute concert. This is solid music; no song falls short of this pleasant, sunny mood.
But it’s a long way up, or down, from the massive assault that created an amazing second album. Fans who may want more of that intensity must seek out the Spaceland releases made at a series of summer 2006 sessions at that L.A. club, made even before 2 in 2008 had bettered the studio debut. That follow-up’s first four songs attest to their command of the songcraft that combines energy with dynamics.
Dynamics are muted on Alive As You Are.The calm mood defies the album’s cover art that features a mascara-rimmed Beatle-haired fop moping behind purple-shaded shrubbery. Instead of gloom, we get glee. This album prefers a casual approach to its return to the decade it loves. While a competent record, the band’s range compresses and the panoramic visions of its earlier albums reduce to a window on a garden, a nice view for a few minutes, but not as satisfying as a bracing expedition up peaks and down canyons that their other records took you through, reminding one of another L.A. exponent of dread and doom, the Warlocks, or Austin’s percussion-heavy messengers of overload, the Black Angels.
A few songs manage to suggest other ‘60s influences besides the Dead. “18th Street Shuffle” starts with a “Run, Run, Run” riff that smacks of the Velvet Underground and the vocals match its druggy feel. “Maple Day Getaway” keeps the Dead’s shuffling pace, but adds a bit of pedal steel recalling the Byrds’ country-rock period. “Dear Author” recalls “I Am the Walrus” in its beat, and “A Lovely Game” hints at the Kinks as well as fellow revivalists Lilys and more British vocal mannerisms.
But these and those Dead-like songs pass rapidly on a short album that feels for a band this talented as if dashed off rather than constructed carefully. The talent remains. But Darker My Love can do better if it wishes to show us how it can incorporate its skills into reshaping more challenging material that 2 and the Spaceland tapes have proven in a very convincing way.