When the press kit accompanying Surgery, the latest from psych-rock quintet the Warlocks, claims the new album is “more accessible” than its predecessor, 2003’s Phoenix, I’m assuming the kit means to read “less inaccessible” than Phoenix. To be fair, Phoenix was a great album, but, a few bright moments notwithstanding (“Baby Blue”, “Shake the Dope Out”), it was a record that took patience to navigate through the narcotic haze. But and so, Bobby Hecksher and company are back with Surgery, an album that is, uh, less inaccessible, and every bit as rewarding as Phoenix.
Surgery ain’t Phoenix, Part Deux, either. In fact, Hecksher claims he was aiming to create a new genre with the new album: Sonic space-age doo-wop. And while that sounds like a lost Frank Zappa project (Sleep Dirt meets Cruising With Ruben and the Jets? But I digress.), Hecksher and the rest of the band—bassist Jenny Fraser, drummers Bob Mustachio and Jason Anchondo, guitarists JC Rees and Corey Lee Granit and organist Laura Grigsby—fairly approximate what sonic space-age doo-wop might be.
Sure, it’s weird, but it works. Somehow, the Warlocks have found the middle ground between the Raveonettes’ Wall of Soundesque attack and the Flaming Lips’ oddball fixation on love, death and outer space. “Angels in Heaven, Angels in Hell” is a prom theme from 2525, a waltz beat twisted together with a space-damaged guitar line; and there’s more than a little Phil Spector lurking in the rhythm section of “It’s Just Like Surgery”. “Evil Eye Again”, all dreamy and Wall of Sound-y, treads the same territory. More importantly, these tunes are all proof that the Warlocks have lightened up—there’s a sweetness to all these songs that was missing from previous releases—and tightened their focus; indeed, only three songs crack the five-minute barrier (there were five on Phoenix).
Hecksher’s voice, which runs the gamut from airy falsetto to slurred druggie (check “Bled Without You Babe”, where he sounds like he needs a transfusion) to Wayne Coyne nasality, ties this weirdo sonic experiment together, though it’s hard to sometimes suss the lyrics out. Not to sell Hecksher’s words short, but they get lost in the sweeping atmospherics of the music. But speaking of Coyne, in a few places on Surgery where the lyrics do shine through—notably album centerpiece “Thursday’s Radiation” where he sings that “there’s a radiation of love” out there—Hecksher is a direct lyrical descendent of the White Suited One.
Fans of the Warlocks’ older albums will also find recognizable material on Surgery; it’s not all The Ronettes in Space. “Thursday’s Radiation” boasts a familiar glaze, starting with a (for the band, at least) stripped-down arrangement, and slowly building a groove, turning the tune into a trippy jam. The album’s back half is especially epic sounding—a pastoral keyboard melody on “The Tangent” morphs into the huge church organ of “Above Earth” and album closer “Suicide Note”. That closing number is more hopeful than the title would suggest; Hecksher starts out as if reciting a prayer, calmly signing off with “I bid you all good night,” while guitar feedback drips out the speakers. Then the tune drifts off into outer space, to a better place (?).
The Warlocks, too, are fearless: “Space age doo-wop” is a great exploration for a band not open to traveling the furthest reaches of the heart, the brain and outer space.