Garage rock ain’t rocket science, though how it still works—when it still does work—can be almost as hard to figure out. At this point, you’d think that pretty much all the possible permutations combining choppy riffs, roughly tuneful vocals and a shroud of hissy production would have been exhausted, yet every once in a while the genre can sound revitalized in the right hands. That’s what lo-fi savant Ty Segall has proved he’s capable of through a prolific number of recordings over the past few years, tapping into a familiar idiom to recast it in a way that comes off just fresh and different enough. Segall’s standout 2011 album Goodbye Bread, in particular, pushed the limits of garage rock’s nuts-and-bolts conventions, blending in easy, blissed-out harmonies without losing any of the ramshackle spontaneity that makes garage rock what it is.
It’s tempting to think of the songs on the Singles 2007-2010 collection as sketches that would come to fruition on Goodbye Bread, especially when you consider how the former was released on the heels of the rave reviews garnered by the latter last year. That’s not to mention that almost all the numbers on Singles clock in at two minutes or less, sometimes feeling like intriguing fragments and rough drafts when compared to Goodbye Bread’s more fleshed out pieces. Still, that would be giving the offerings on the retrospective the short shrift, since a lot of ‘em work on their own terms. Even if the tools at his service are coarse and rudimentary, Segall never gives you the sense that he’s doing anything less than working to perfect the lo-fi gem.
It might not seem that what Segall’s doing is anything that requires much proficiency—maybe because it comes so naturally to him—but the singles prove he’s got total command over a tradition that has more to it than it’s given credit for. On Singles, Segall pretty much covers the gamut of garage rock styles, from blues rock to stripped-down psychedelia, slapdash punk-pop to grunge. Of course, there’s a primal quality to the proceedings, most noticeable on the crackling thrash-and-bash romper “Where We Go” and the throwback crunch of the Troggs-y “Cents”. Some of the collection’s liveliest numbers recall early Nirvana, like “No No” and “...And Then Judy Walked In”, which begins with a heavy pop sound circa Bleach until Segall cuts it with some oddball organ lines. Segall also stands up well next to more recent acts, picking up where they left off then going with his own instincts. Segall brings to mind the artsy noise of neo-garage innovators No Age on “It”, though he puts more of an emphasis is on a pop sensibility, while the blues-tinged “Sweets” harnesses the energy of early White Stripes in a way that makes a duo format seem like overkill.
Segall really turns the corner on the second half of the compilation, where he comes up with a batch of singles-quality tracks with back-of-your-mind melodies of the kind that nag at you before they stick with you. There’s the almost delicate “Lovely One”, which surprises you with its “New Slang”-ish Shins-like strumming and Beatles-y vocals, but still retains enough grit to keep you from thinking that Segall’s gone soft on you. As if to remind you of that, “Happy Creeps” follows it up by digging into Segall’s down-and-dirty, hot-and-bothered side, as he comes off like he’s channeling Jerry Lee Lewis fronting a sloppy basement-rock band. Coming closest to the richness and depth of Goodbye Bread is the centerpiece of the collection, a beefed-up rendition of obscure ‘70s pre-punk band Simply Saucer’s “Bullet Proof Nothing”, which turns out to be a fully formed three-minute pop punch-out with just enough of a twisted attitude to mark garage rock’s outsider art ethos. More earnest and desperate in his yearning here than anywhere else, Segall pays tribute to the genre’s overwrought, over-the-top side as he conveys how love hurts so bad when he begs, “C’mon, c’mon / Now treat me / Yeah, treat me like dirt.”
At 25 tracks long, Singles sometimes feels like too much of a good thing, since it be hard to tell apart short ditties that can run together. Still, there’s something to be said for how Segall is able to strike upon a unifying vision from these one-off offerings, plugging in varied influences and styles to come up with his own signature sound. For most underground artists, a collection like Singles would be a nice career sum-up, but in Ty Segall’s case, he’s just checking in here to show how far his craft has come up to this point, on the way to even bigger and better things.