It could have been great. It had all the right ideas, right motivations. The key ingredients. A psychedelic underground pop band, straight from the streets of San Francisco. Science fiction paranoia direct from Philip K. Dick. A musical collective whose rotating cast totes instruments from all over the spectrum. A dedication to Brian Wilson and the Zombies. A love of the Flaming Lips and Spiritualized. Even artistic inspiration from the sci-fi comic book mastery of Jack Kirby. Pure pop bliss outs on the menu.
It could have been perfect. But then “authenticity” got in the way.
The Natural Riot, the latest release from the Shimmer Kids UnderPop Association, has all of the right ingredients, but it is woefully undercooked. And the culprit, as best I can tell, is the hobgoblin of lo-fi production. As the liner notes make clear, this disc features organs, guitars, drums, piano, theremin, sleighbells, saxophone, trumpet, vocoder, tape loops, and more, so the fact that some of the songs on the disc turn into a sonic sludge isn’t too surprising. Unfortunately, the effect is heightened by the group’s production technique. Recorded by the band on a digital 8-track in their collective space known as the Church of the Amplifier, The Natural Riot makes a case for the group changing their haunt’s name to the Church of the Muffler.
Really, I’m not being a pedantic audiophile about this. At the best of times some of the songs on The Natural Riot achieve the grainy, cheap phonograph quality of muddy garage music. But at the worst of times it sounds like listening to an album playing in another room with the speaker placed flush against the wall. The deep ranges dominate the sound, while the high range seems forcibly clipped. At times, such as the closing of “The Getaway” or the chaotic jumble of “Burning Bridges”, this works to a certain advantage. But overall it had me checking and rechecking my speakers and headphones to make sure they were working. The worst part is that the vocals get buried in this murkiness. Some bands are better off burying their vocalists’ inabilities under the music, but the Shimmer Kids have a very capable singer in Josh Babcock, as well as some potentially gorgeous, Beach Boys-inspired harmonies, but both become lost in the washed-out production values of the disc.
All my personal audio prejudices aside, the Shimmer Kids have their hearts in the right place and have produced a promising work in The Natural Riot. Things kick off to a great start with “Model Kit”, a power-pop send-up of anti-consumerism and anti-industrial sympathies. The music is fresh, catchy, and the lyrics clever and attention grabbing. “Like Candy, Like Poison”, “Miss Classified” and “Baby Bankrobber” show off the Kids’ abilities to write clever, imaginative pure pop songs, the latter even coming close to sounding like a John Wesley Harding tune, while “Tones in Orbit”, “The Pilot and the Gardener”, and “The Getaway” display the Kids’ love of light psychedelia.
Perhaps what makes The Natural Riot the most successful, though, is the running theme of acid-washed paranoia. The fact that the liner notes quote Dick is no accident. These songs brood with a hippie sense of psychedelic free love, but like a Dick character, the songs are much more concerned with the constraints of society and the limits on freedom than they are with daisy petal sentiments. It’s a science fiction reality that comes somewhere between Dick and Burroughs, with the locale of death being the sedative of suburbia. Not every song falls into this classification, which keeps the disc from being too cloistered in one idea, but the underlying idea is always there, making the songs more interesting and tense than a simple pop song might otherwise be.
And that’s why it frustrates me to no end that I can barely hear it. In just about every sense this album would be right up my personal alley. It’s complicated, engaging, full of great hooks and quirky instrumentation. The songs are both singable and interesting, based on some complicated themes and filtered through some good lyrical imagery. But the fact that it’s so murky, murky to the point of being beyond garage, makes it somehow less effective. I hate to hold it up to, say, a Jellyfish album, because even with all the musical similarities, the Shimmer Kids UnderPop Association is aiming for an entirely different aesthetic, but the production just winds up being a disappointment in the end.
The Natural Riot will certainly appeal to those who value lo-fi production for its own sake, and, as I said, the album itself is full of things to like. But for those of us who don’t mind slick production, the latest from the Shimmer Kids will feel like stunted development. The potential for anthemic, soaring, psychedelic pop is there, but it falls short. But maybe that’s what “underpop” is all about.