[26 April 2011]
If the songs of many current indie bands conjure up sunny beach images, Xray Eyeballs’ songs bring us to the beach at night, when it’s dark and a little colder and there’s a bonfire and a group of leather-clad punks drinking beers. Xray Eyeballs play a familiar brand of retro garage rock that is drowned in reverb and led by single note guitar hooks. O.J. San Felipe formed the band with two fellow members of the garage band Golden Triangle and they write in that same genre with a thinner and sloppier sound.
San Felipe finds darkness in walking the line between’60s garage and ‘80s new wave. For instance, the opening guitar line of “Nightwalkers” sounds like a Cure riff played by the Cramps, albeit not played very well. The other facets of the band’s aesthetic are a DIY sloppiness (even though all of the members are in other bands that aren’t this sloppy, Xray Eyeballs plays like a junior high band who actually wrote some good tunes); and a cool punk look. Perhaps the best thing about the album is the cover with a scary black and white woman’s face marked by a black straight-edge X.
When I saw Xray Eyeballs play a year ago, I attributed their sloppiness to a lack of live chops and to them being a relatively new band. They don’t really go for the antics that other garage bands use to spice up their old tricks, though they do seem to enjoy themselves. Still the fun they have doesn’t necessarily make them very good. San Felipe has good ideas that get killed in the execution. The melodies are catchy, but his thin and high voice sounds like it is straining to stay in tune (which he doesn’t always manage to do); his guitar hooks are nice, but he sounds like he is struggling to play them. Beneath it all, the rhythm section is off and typically slow.
Plenty other bands on the indie Internet radar have a similar sound, like Sonny and the Sunsets and Hunx and his Punx. The one thing Xray Eyeballs does differently is not have a name in the “Leader and his Band” formula. But the countless line of garage revival bands that extends featurelessly into the past just makes Xray Eyeballs’ beginners approach stand out even less. For example, “Big Toe” is almost indistinguishable from a Hunx track, especially considering its riff mines “Then He Kissed Me” for inspiration. The bulk of the album replays stock garage hooks and solos except with low energy and dark references. The better songs are the more upbeat, punkier tracks like “Broken Beds”.
The standout track is the one major deviation in sound and shows what promise San Felipe’s writing has. “Drums of Dead” is based around a drum machine, which may account for its slightly steadier rhythm. The song is minimalist, an approach that suits the skill set of the band. Like the other tracks, “Drums of Dead” is thin, but here, the thinness works: a two note guitar line drones with only one chord change. San Felipe’s voice is heavily distorted (a good cover for him) and bassist Carly Rabalais echoes his melody.
Though Rabalais sings backups often—and the band might be better if she took a leading role, like in Golden Triangle—here her vocals are perfectly placed. Ironically, the best song is less catchy than any of the other tracks. Yet it is still better. It has a Krautrock sparseness that the band could stick to more often. For some reason, San Felipe’s choppy guitar playing is excusable here because the sought effect of the phased quarter-note line is actually thinness and simplicity.