Nearly a decade after the original Elephant 6 collective began to make a name for itself by reinvigorating the world of psychedelic pop, the collective’s shadow still looms large. While some of the original acts in this grouping have stuck to their guns and continue to make together (The Apples in Stereo, Of Montreal), others have gone their disparate ways (Neutral Milk Hotel, Olivia Tremor Control). And while the various musicians who first came coalesced in Athens, Georgia, have, for the most part, continued to fly the banner of psychedelic indie pop, it’s been hard for new projects to escape the gravitational pull of Elephant 6’s reputation, at least as grounds for comparison.
For Bill Doss, one of the co-founders of the Olivia Tremor Control, the escape vehicle has been his new band, the Sunshine Fix. Despite being on board for two of the most critically acclaimed psych-pop albums of the past 20 years, Dusk at Cubist Castle and Black Foliage, the main thrust of the Sunshine Fix has been away from the sometimes obtuse head-scapes of the OTC, concentrating instead on more song-oriented traditional pop.
Green Imagination, the Sunshine Fix’s second full-length, following 2001’s Age of the Sun, harkens back to basic pop formulas more than anything else, although retaining some touches of the often trippy worldview of the ‘60s and ‘70s that informed the Elephant 6 bands. While critics noted that Age of the Sun managed to tie in plenty of the experimental nodes that made the Olivia Tremor Control so diverse, it was also frequently pointed out that Doss seemed to be the pop traditionalist of the group. This is only cemented by Green Imagination, which strays less into sound oddities and sticks more closely to the short-and-sweet pop formula.
Things kick off with a rhythmic and chugging declaration in “Statues and Glue”, bolstered by Dave Gerow’s drumming and Sam Mixon’s bass. This slice of straight-ahead melodic power pop is followed by the decidedly more psychedelic styles of “What Do You Know”, but even with effects-processed guitars and vocals, the tracks’s overall tone remains light, more on the side of Donovan than the 13th Floor Elevators or Syd Barrett. Then “Extraordinary/Ordinary” comes along and weirds things up a bit further, sounding like early B-52s filtered through Phish. It’s a promising beginning to a lighthearted pop album, but it’s not exactly a bold statement. In fact, if anything, the Sunshine Fix sounds like it’s not aiming to go too far beyond the average Bonnaroo Festival standard.
In many ways, this lack of self-indulgence is a welcome change from the increasingly expansive experiments of bands like the OTC. There was always the chance, lurking on the periphery, that the music would slip into fatuous and unchecked noise rock. The light psychedelic approach helps the Sunshine Fix feel more grounded in a simpler musical experience. But during the middle of the disc, things simply sag. The interstellar Brian Wilson aesthetic of “Interstates” is a thud, slowing down Green Imagination‘s pacing to a crawl for an all-too-obvious moment of druggy mental exploration, and it takes the disc another few tracks to regain its sense of flow. The overtly Beatlesque “Rx” follows with a slow, deliberate waltz of gradually building intensity, but its increasing tension doesn’t really lead anywhere. And while “Afterglow” might be an otherwise passable blend of melody and rhythm, it just never manages to stand out as more than standard fare from any other pop band.
Things pick up again with “Enjoy the Teeth” and “Face the Sun”. The former starts off as a slow-paced homage to Beatles-era McCartney, but shifts into a punchy, ‘80s British indie pop mode, finally striking the right pure pop chords and standing out above the preceding songs. The latter kicks in with a blues-rock edge and injects a much-needed dose of funk, finally giving the Sunshine Fix’s strong rhythm section something to play with and at last giving the disc some energy. But it’s “Runaway Run” that finds the band most squarely hitting the mark. Building from a beautiful acoustic guitar melody, the song swells and surges forward from a ballad into big, anthemic sunshine pop with the help of a surprisingly effective Georgia Children’s Chorus. This sudden introduction of the children’s voices help give the song its expansive, sing-along feel. It’s a much-needed highlight for Green Imagination.
Finishing with a surprisingly up-beat and quick-tempoed “Sunday Afternoon” and then coming to an abrupt stop, there’s something missing from the Sunshine Fix’s latest offering that can’t help but allow for comparisons to Doss’s prevoious work, both with the band’s Age of the Sun debut and with his work in the OTC. While there’s nothing wrong with reigning in one’s bold, experimental tendencies and focusing on the complexities of the song, it’s difficult to go from something that makes such a statement to something far more understated without the impression that something has been lost.
Green Imagination is a good indie pop album with some hippie-vibe, psychedelic overtones, but its not a great one. Although never entirely bland, it fails to make much of an impact beyond one or two well-crafted songs. Pleasant but inessential, the Sunshine Fix is overshadowed by a brief but momentous backstory, and Green Imagination won’t help the band overcome those probably unfair comparisons.
// Notes from the Road
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