Ganglians start their second album reaching for an anthem: the chorus of harmonizing voices that opens “Drop the Act” announces, “This is a sad, sad song for all you sad, sad people.” The brightness of the melody and the jangly guitars that come right into accompany it certainly promise relief from sadness. However, as the song moves into the verse, the band falls down a peg into typical ‘60s copped melodies, midtempo doldrums. Periodically, the anthemic opener comes back, but by the end of the song, Ganglians have moved onto a different, less compelling refrain: “We don’t want to be sat on, don’t want to get shat on, for taking the high road.” While this new part is still catchy, the song is too sprawling and searching to really drive it home. This is the problem with Still Living. Ganglians have filled out a bit for their sophomore effort, going slightly beyond the precious surf-laden chirping of a garage band as they reach for more. But sometimes they reach too far. You get the feeling that each song has one extra part that waters down the poppy chops the initial idea keyed into, so you forget what you liked the song in the first place. As a whole, then, the album is flabby (nearly an hour long) providing too much room for distraction.
Though Ganglians have moved to a new label—Lefse Records—their aesthetic still resides with their former label, Woodsist, home to children of a similar summery retro vibe like Woods and Real Estate. As with those bands, Ganglians risk their songwriting prowess on a nostalgia trip. The production is such a put-on—an attempt to recreate a time that never existed to them—that the strength gets lost. The surf guitar licks wind through almost every song, so that it’s a wonder when you hear the guitar go for an actual chord. I find myself wishing I’d never hear surf music again. The full picture ends up being too cute, like kids playing dress up. If the band really mined its strengths without all the hipster trappings, its songs could pack a bigger (or more concise) punch.
The best of the surf songs on the album is “Evil Weave”, which has a singalong bubble gum melody and a wave-riding backbeat. But the real standouts are the ones that depart from the dominant aesthetic. “Bradley” is a grab bag of sounds, beginning with a slowed down late ‘70s/early ‘80s power pop with a Beach Boys-inspired melody. However, the melody is too slow to be memorable, so it winds up sounding like a Panda Bear castoff. On the next track, “Things to Know”, we finally get a reprieve from the overbearing guitar sound. This track is a bass led R&B track, complete with bubbling low background voices and falsetto harmonies. Unfortunately, the lead vocal are a bit weaker here, though not weak enough to drain the song, which survives due to its comparative simplicity. The final deviation is “The Toad”, where the band tries its hand at slow and brash Goth and then finishes the track with a cool post-punk jerky dance raveup.
Admirably, Ganglians are trying for more. You get the sense, however, that there is a bit of calculation in this reach, so that each song’s search for new territory is a play to place the band in the weirdo outsider pop category, a band of Ariel Pinks. Aesthetically, this gels with an inability to remain safely in one perfect melody. Something about the album feels too safe, too predictable, maybe too sunny and happy to be marginal. The best outsider music contains the darkness of solitude. Ganglians, however, are obviously a gang, a bunch of dudes having fun and making fun music. If the album could be distilled to its essential parts, it would be that much more convincing. For now, the band seems to get distracted too easily—or else they don’t have a good enough ear for editing. But even if they do throw every idea into the mix, they could at least play a little faster to counteract the sleepiness induced by the duller, more typical ‘60s pop rehash they sometimes serve up.
// Notes from the Road
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