The death of Charles Gocher brought an end to Sun City Girls and the posthumously completed Funeral Mariachi was their final release. An unusually subdued record (described by one wag as “music to drink Drano to”) it was, by a country mile, my favorite record of 2010. It magnificently combined the trademark SCG edginess with an appropriately mournful tone of blissful, melodic, exhaustion. Happily, nobody seriously believed “final release”’ meant that fairly regular transmissions of older material from the group would not continue. After all, Sun City Girls has existed since the late 1980s and released everything from full-length albums to small batches of vinyl singles, cassettes, film soundtracks and other obscure delights. And so it is with Gum Arabic, a fabulous collection and a great place to embark on a journey into that extensive catalog of obscure delights. Several tracks are cover tunes foraged by Alan Bishop during travels in Egypt and Morocco, recorded from the radio or gleaned from unmarked cassettes, then re-styled and re-titled by the group to fit their own artistic needs. Others are by various North African and Middle Eastern artists and one piece, “Wild World of Animals”, was written for a TV series of that name.
A chance discovery of the Torch of The Mystics LP turned me into a fan, as did recent listens to the glorious solo releases of Sir Richard Bishop. One song included here, “Space Prophet Dogon”, is amongst the group’s best, coming from Torch one of their most consistently good albums. But all these tracks are full of raw, spiky energy. Naturally, the music on Gum Arabic is marinated in Middle Eastern, African and Asian cultural sounds. Given that the Bishops have spoken on camera of their birth in the region and of their support for the perception of those who depict the US as political aggressors, it is tempting to imagine that their caustic music sneers with contempt for Western music and heaves with loathing at Western hypocrisy and polluted values. Except that their fierce, passionate, music mirrors elements of surf guitar and bristles with the raw power of garage punk rock and an angular, subterranean, take on the raga blues. So while Sun City Girls take influences from afar, their sound is a million miles from the sometimes overly-bland so-called World Music. It’s a piratical exploit, to be sure, but Western ears will be oblivious to the heist. Exhibit A might be “Cruel & Thin”, which is nicked from “Lili Twil” by Les Frères Megri but don’t expect a court case any time soon. Plus, consider Picasso.
Lots of groups start out wild yet lapse too swiftly into a comforting complacency, premature sentiment, mid-paced formulaic retread and easy melody. By contrast, Sun City Girls never lost their edge. Base on their queer energy and defiance alone they should be more widely heard. They always sound gritty and primitive with Sir Richard’s guitar usually either dirty, sublime, or both. Obviously their appeal will never be as wide as that of the other gum arabic after which this collection is named: an endemic ingredient in food and print, and a popular Middle-Eastern dessert. That doesn’t matter, and doubts over whether the two remaining members actually were born in the region and whether or not they are singing in a made-up or phonetically approximate language are also beside the point. For even as unreliable narrators the Sun City Girls are more satisfying than most reliable ones. In an age of over-information, and myriad unwitting impersonators of everything from Brian Wilson to Paul Bowles, they are testament to the fact that small mysteries can be the most pleasing of all. I trust that more of this music will indeed be forthcoming: fiercely independent, cunningly-titled, silly, tangential, almost too prolific, unfathomable, brutal, surreal, uncompromising, crude, obtuse, nakedly sarcastic, and always open to charges of being vaguely obscene.