[4 November 2004]
It’s probably fair to approach a band that names itself after a derivative of the hallucinogenic LSD with a modicum of skepticism. For those of use who remember the escapades on Haight-Ashbury or have at least seen the movie “Hair”, the free love and free drugs ethos of the California based West Indian Girl feels more than a little dubious. Band-mates Robert James and Francis Ten are openly drug-addled musicians rooted in the rave scenes of Texas and transplanted into the cannabis clouded city of Los Angeles, where they built their own private studio and set to work in 2002 setting their psychotropic trips to feel good pop music inspired by early ‘90s shoegazer pop and classic psychedelic rock. Their debut self-titled release makes strides toward the realization of their utopic vision of expressive music laden with mystical imagery that gets listeners high on bright glistening synths and upbeat danceable rhythms, but more often their music sounds as though it actually requires psychotropic stimulus in order to be enjoyed. Alternately ambitious and lackadaisical, the album is a patchwork of sunny approachable soundscapes and droopy hedonistic trip-pop.
Drug-inspired music is hit-or-miss by its nature, since doing anything in altered states can either produce unimagined creativity or unthinkable meaningless schlock that only gets worse as the come-down mania sets in. Some argue that certain kinds of art can only be truly enjoyed under the influence, but it has always seemed to me that if art can’t be enjoyed without substance abuse, then it’s probably not the art that one is in fact enjoying. That said, and with the assurance that this music critic is wholly sober at the time of this writing, West Indian Girl does indeed have its moments of musical brilliance. The album opens with a heavy classic rock beat and a dreamy, reverb-laden harmonica trumpeting the entrance of gritty, multi-layered vocals reminiscent of early ‘90s Blur. The song, “Trip”, reflects to perfection the band’s ethos of mystical union and liberation, a freewheeling track that is breezy and upbeat with shimmering synth tones, an exuberant chorus, and a tenacious hook. The following track, “What Are You Afraid Of” adds to the growing sentimentality with the addition of a euphoric romanticism and a vaguely political invocation of revolutionary liberation. The song weaves together raunchy guitar solos and soaring feminine harmonies, forming a sound that is uniquely its own, one that features a dreamy call and response lyrical form and many layers of contrasting vocal timbres. The group has at their disposal a diverse palette of sounds and influences that comes out on “Green” as they use vintage synth tones to create the effect of a dissonant sitar drone while the guitars rasp out tinny electronic shreaks, producing organic sounds with purely mechanical timbres that ingeniously paint the image of a slightly off-color journey through memory that’s mirrored in the lyrics. Their musical sophistication occasionally lifts them out of their self-imposed anachronism, as on “Lay Down”, where the rhythmic quotation of a human heartbeat and the freeform expansive sound melding Robert James’s raw vocals with the polished keyboard tones recalls present day soundscape artists like Sigur Ros.
Unfortunately, the album’s midsection collapses in on itself under the weight of its own lofty ideals. “Miles from Monterey” quotes from the same musical palette, but loses its balance, the sweet ethereal vocals fighting for air beneath the overpowering disco funk beat. Trying to adopt the stance of Pink Floyd’s fusion of gritty synth experimentation and delicate emotional openness, they come off sounding more like Brian Adams stumbling on stage with Astralwerks label-mates Air. Perhaps in an attempt to push the sound envelope of their own digital fingerprint, their use of synth tones sounds increasingly more forced and campy, as does the use of pre-pubescent choral harmonies which cease to sound angelic and begin to verge on abrasive and just plain pretentious. What sounds like grade-schoolers singing into a tin can on “Northern Sky” feels about as pathetic as the syrupy mush of reverb-smeared acoustic guitars, cherubic vocals, and hippy, twirl-inducing synths on “Leave Tonight”.
Whether their debut album is an accurate representation of the revolutionary aural soundscapes tripping through the neurological passageways of West Indian Girl’s collective genius is difficult to discern without further psychotropic experimentation. However, it is safe to say that in the absence of altered mental states, the album is a decent to mediocre attempt at reviving the early ‘90s optimism oozing from the fusion of brit pop and new wave, while recalling the free love and liberation of ‘60s rock. Where they succeed at creating the sense of mystical union through upbeat refrains that seduce with electronic ingenuity, it is possible to forget the rest of the album’s cannabis-induced slouch. In the main, however, the album suffers from its own hedonistic pleasure-seeking, which takes precedence over attempts at creating lasting and meaningful music.