Imagine a record store clerk. She is excited that some kids — some really young kids, like teenagers, here — have begun to come into her store pretty regularly. And not to loiter, but to buy records. Actual records, on vinyl. They even seem to have some taste, split between them. They bought that Dum Dum Girls album on display in the front rack (nice), some Psychedelic Horseshit (maybe that name actually works, after all), some WAVVES (okay, they’re trying, nobody’s perfect). She is delighted, sending them on their way with a smile and a knowing nod. Now, imagine her chagrin when the kids return the next day, their purchases and receipts in hand. She tries to explain, to no avail.
“Wait,” they say, “it’s supposed to sound like that?”
Lo-fi has come back in a big way over the last couple of years, and often for no discernible reason other than the veneer of scuzzy credibility that a certain level of white noise hissing on top of the mix might bring to a band. This isn’t meant to debate the merits of that particular recording style — it has its appeal, rooted in nostalgia for the analog days, or in a brand of VU worship, or in rightful admiration for a band recording on cheap equipment in a rented basement. Whatever the case, legions of artists — new and vet, alike — have lately been ready to swear allegiance to treble.
Sic Alps was one of the first to lay proper claim to the “noise-pop” label in the 2000s. They’ve put out a steady string of albums and EPs since 2006, each record holding its own comfortable place in the band’s lo-fi, garage stylings. Short songs, bursts of noise, plenty of guitar, simple and catchy rhythms. Lately, Sic Alps has also been ceding more ground to melody, a good decision to the minds of many listeners (this writer included, for what it’s worth). The group’s new record, Napa Asylum, sees it continuing in that direction, bringing more acoustic guitar — still shrouded in a vague murk of reverb, fear not — and blues overtones to its compositional palate. Napa Asylum gives a pleasant enough listen, one remarkably free of squall and jarring white noise, but one that seems hesitant in a way unimaginable to the band’s back catalog.
If you’re drawn, for example, to the gently head-bobbing blues-isms of “Wasted at Church”, you’ll also be drawn to the gently head-bobbing blues-isms of “Occult Display”. In fact, you’d be hard-pressed to tell them apart. Then, throw “Trip Train” and “Do You Want to Give $$?” into the same pile, and you’d really be in trouble. Again, this abiding sameness can’t be the most offensive thing a band can provide, but it’s also far from interesting. Listening to these tracks back-to-back with some of Sic Alps’s past material, it’s confounding.
Napa Asylum fares better when the band indulges itself in the distortion that served it so well in its early career. That shroud of noise surrounding “Eat Happy’s” chorus gives frontman Mike Donovan’s “be be be be” vocals a nicely percussive punch. Similarly, the feedback and slightly nauseous downtuning on “Ball of Flame” breaks up the album’s languid pace, its pot-clouded atmosphere coming, ironically enough, as a breath of fresh air. Sic Alps manages these types of recording strategies quite well, and credit to them for turning instead to more straightforward songwriting on Napa Asylum, letting down the guard that reverb and tape noise provided in the past. It’s a subtly bold step and one the band should continue to investigate, regardless of the fact that it didn’t quite work out in their favor here.