Usually the kids plunking away on their guitars in their makeshift garage studio are about as good as their meager entourage (composed mainly of girlfriends) would suggest, and even worse when the same kids have grown to middle age while their aesthetic has ossified where they left it in the Pleistocene era, along with their hairlines. Skooshny’s latest release looks for all the world to be one of those “just-for-the-fun-of-it” releases by the same garage-dwelling, middle-aged hacks with nothing better to do than take the ol’ Rickenbacker for a spin around their suburban cul-de-sac.
Formed in L.A. in 1971 and self-described as “boring” (supposedly this is “skooshny” translated from Russian), the band never took off for the simple reason that none of the band members had a car, and by the end of the decade they disbanded. Their languid, paisley pop tunes were re-discovered in the dank collectors’ bins of psychedelia’s English motherland by Bill Forsyth of Minus Zero Records, who reissued Skooshny’s rare recordings in the early ‘90s. Having apparently decided to pick up their career where they left off, though still sans voiture, their newest album Zoloto (translation: “Gold”) is a retrospective of their work plus four new songs (“Beautiful Bruise”, “I See You Now”, “Angel With a Devil’s Heart”, “You Paint My World”). With an album cover featuring a satiric title, posed band photo, and vaguely anachronistic Cold War overtones, the album screams bourgeois self-indulgence; but, what it whispers below the garish veneer is a brilliant cacophony of genre-defiant pop that broods over California traffic-induced white noise and utopian dreams of folk pop psychedelic transcendence. Slipping past the album’s chintzy cardboard sleeve, the listener finds apt comparisons with the Byrds, post-hallucinogenic Monkees, modern sincere mock rockers Ween. and awkward shoe-gazers the world over.
Most retrospective albums show some sort of aesthetic progress over time; rather Zoloto presents Skooshny’s career as more or less one cohesive musical concept rooted in bright tongue-in-cheek pop in a rainbow of psychedelic colors from sunny yellow ballads to blue-tinged melancholy tunes and occasionally red hot rock. Yet, this is no nostalgic romp through a mawkish field of daisies and love beads. Skooshny is peering at us through the haze of smog that has since descended upon the ruins of Haight-Asbury. The song “Beautiful Bruise” recalls the pensive guitar strumming and jangly keyboards of hippie-era greats the Byrds, yet the melancholy deadpan vocals transform the colors of peace and love into the “big, bad, bright, beautiful bruise” that has since taken its place. Skooshny are particularly adept at moving through these kinds of juxtapositions, and slogging through the complexities of idealized imagery and monotonous, lumbering decay.
One of the finer tracks on the album is “I See You Now”, a haunting and poignant ballad that harnesses pulsing guitars and a gut wrenching chorus that churns with musical complexity, translating straight pop form into a mixture of meter changes and layers of contrasting timbres. On the incendiary track “It Hides More Than It Tells”, Skooshny’s glum shoe-gazing pose is transformed into a brooding tension that explodes into a tight garage rocker, whose youthful roughshod energy bleeds through raucous percussion and fuzz guitars in a gratifying flurry of pop rock brilliance. As the band explores this tension further on songs that range from “No Life Story” and its urban cowboy spaghetti western feel to mournful folk ballad “Dessert for Two”, Skooshny stakes its territory on that squeamish tickly spot somewhere between the intuitive ever loving heart and the guilty gluttonous pleasures in the bowels of the human beast.
Yet with all the layers of irony, the lyric double takes, and the bitter sweet harmonies, Skooshny never confesses their true intensions. Do they rock, or do they mock rock? At times their lyric opacity is a welcome vacation from contemporary prurient pop that loves to revel in lyric titillation, as lyrics like “Yellows and greens / My teeth through your jeans” dress their sensual reverie in tasteful undergarments. However, sometimes this opacity is simply unintelligible and mildly ridiculous, as on the chronically mediocre “Clickin’ My Fingers”, where one lyric quips “Sterno in a cup / Drink up” and the redundant “Chicken Little was right / The sky is falling”. While at times the album seems to fall into a cycle of self-quotation that is made all the worse considering the album’s span includes what Skooshny considers their retrospective best, more often their apparent honesty and insistent aversion to pretense make it nearly impossible to conclude they have anything but the best and most mind-boggling intensions. Like Ween after them, and now before them, Skooshny’s music dwells in the twilight zone of popular culture between authenticity and parody that exasperates some and thrills others. Whether Skooshny’s latest release is zoloto or merely skooshny, this is a band that is worth a listen.