You can’t blame a band for getting sick of the constant comparisons that critics and consumers make between groups. Shades of Black Sabbath, Beatles-esque, Barry Manilow-ish, etc.—these things inevitably cause musicians to huff and puff about how lazy and stupid the buying public is and how misunderstood they, the artists, truly are.
Part of it has to be an act. Everyone likes to think that they are 100 percent original, but even the most ingenious among us are working on about 95 percent inspiration and five percent invention. If you know your history, then you will know where you’re coming from, that’s what Bob Marley said. So when a musician says he or she doesn’t have any influences, chances are he’s either messing with you, he’s too caught up in his own ego to give credit to others, or he’s too dumb to realize his talent is more Darwin and amino acids than Jesus and Divine Intervention.
Yet, another part of the exasperation is understandable. Think of the feeling you get when somebody tells you you’re just like your mother or father. No matter how you feel about your parents, it stings to know that somebody besides you can so readily see the similarities. There’s a line in “Joseph Blow” from Sunset Valley’s Icepond that, despite the title character’s questionable reality, sums up the inspirational predicament succinctly: “He found out why he’s never old / His mother and his father were a fucking plastic mold.” No matter how original we want to be, the polypropylene never falls far from the press.
So it goes, even for the musician who penned “Joseph Blow”. Herman Jolley may have a name that you’d sooner expect to hear about on “Lake Wobegon Days” than as the frontman of an indie band from the Pacific Northwest, but that’s exactly what he is. And as vigorously as he may fight the comparison, it’s tough to get out of listening to Icepond without hearing a bit of the Pixies in the power chords and atmospheric moods. “Fall Fly” lopes along with the nonchalant airiness of “Caribou”, while “Wild Nights” and “Touch You” power up like the better half of Trompe Le Monde.
Sunset Valley also has a deeper undercurrent of what came and seemingly went with the Pixies: the ability to be ironic, funny and way out there with a decidedly post-punk style that can tear the roof off without limiting itself to three chords and the truth. Right around the early ‘90s, bands influenced by the Pixies’ seemingly split into two camps, with one half following Kurt Cobain and Nirvana into the realm of the angry young wallflowers and the other half following Stephen Malkmus and Pavement into the supper club of the quirky ironists. This is all a simplification, of course, but the point is that until Sunset Valley came along, it seemed that the Pixies would remain a genre unto themselves.
Now, with their third full-length, Sunset Valley is getting back to the style and musicmaking approach that they do best. And what they do best isn’t simply sounding like the Pixies, in case you were wondering. With Icepond, Sunset Valley has returned to a three-piece unit that leans more toward live recording than creating songs on tape as they did with Boyscout Superhero. Yet, there’s more maturity there than the last time they made music as a trio for their spectacularly raw 1998 debut, The New Speed. Whereas Jolley and Co. would build and build to a deafening crescendo as they do on that album’s “Met My Mako,” on this album’s title track they throw some hints in the direction of explosion but make things even more interesting by smoldering rather than flaming up. That’s not to say they can’t get rowdy when they want to, because “Wired Nights” combines dropped riffs with punchy vocals the way they used to up there in the Pacific Northwest. It’s a similar if more catchy ride we’re taken on in “Touch You,” which comes complete with—sorry, but I gotta say it—Pixies-esque riffs and orgasmic harmonizing.
Elsewhere, it’s the downbeats that Jolley revels in. “Nico Ride” takes those riffs, slows them down and drenches them in layers of reverberating feedback while an acoustic guitar peeks out from the whitewash of sound. Closing tracks “Matinee Idol” and “Nautilus Sun” stagger elegantly through space as well: the former combines starlit keyboards with Jolley’s pensive paen to someone or something that could be spiritual or could be literal; the latter is a subtle lullaby that finds Jolley reaching his highest, softest notes while acoustic and electric guitars keep his voice warm. It’s something that the Pixies never did, and it’s proof that even though they may be a band because of the Pixies, there’s much more to them than an uncanny ability to keep some other band’s good thing going. After listening to Icepond, there’s no doubt Sunset Valley’s here to start their own good thing.