Bands that get lumped into (or who willingly adopt) the category of lo-fi always run the risk of being called out if they ever get less noisy — whether or not the noise actually has anything to do with the production value. It’s a version of the old punk conundrum of selling out. Recently, the lo-fi moniker has been a badge of hipster status, and we’ve seen plenty of those so-called lo-fi bands go “clean.” Psychedelic Horseshit are part of the lo-fi brigade, but not without ambivalence. The noisy duo is probably best known for singer Matt Horseshit’s interview/rant in 2009, where he talks to precisely this problem inherent to lo-fi, while heaping abuse along the way on the more successful examples of the genre (Wavves, Vivian Girls, No Age). Horseshit never claimed a special affinity for bad quality, just a lack of means and knowledge. The group threatened to keep getting cleaner and cleaner, a path their peers have also followed. On the debut record for Fat Cat, Laced, the production value may be cleaner, but Psychedelic Horseshit has not “sold out” in terms of commitment to noisy yet poppy tunes and an overall brash aesthetic.
Psychedelic Horseshit’s neighbors and friends, Times New Viking, just made their first “clean” album, which got mostly positive reviews — and that album still sounds out of tune and simple in its songwriting approach. In other words, it is arguably not a sellout album. Likewise, Psychedelic Horseshit still sticks to three chord songs with easy melodies. But the major shift on Laced is not the purity of the production; it’s the jump from guitar to synth as focal point of the songs. Laced almost sounds like a parody of the summery, synth-based, beach pop that has had parallel success to the lo-fi scene in the last years. In fact, I’m inclined to interpret this album as another critique, paired with Horseshit’s rant, of the state of indie music in the Internet hype age.
By calling Laced almost a parody, I’m not saying that Psychedelic Horseshit is like the scuzzy, indie equivalent of Weird Al. These guys just have a sense of humor to go along with their keen interest in pop songs. Remember, they are the ones who coined the genre term “shitgaze”, which has probably bit them in the ass just as much as the infamous interview has. The thing about Psychedelic Horseshit that makes it interesting is that there is something fundamentally shitty about its music — but that also makes it fun.
With songs like “Tropical Vision” and the album’s centerpiece, the seven minute long “I Hate the Beach”, Psychedelic Horseshit is obviously interested in saying something about the summery music trend, even while it reuses the genre-defining sounds. For the most part, the drum machine tracks that take us through the whole album employ island rhythms. But both of these beach songs invert their desire. “Tropical Vision” is all in the head: Horseshit sings in his snotnosed voice, “I don’t need no waves / Don’t need no palm trees swaying / I can go away on a tropical vision”. “I Hate the Beach” proclaims its hatred with a caveat, “but I like the nice weather”. The swirling synths dominating all of the tracks call to mind Animal Collective’s most recent work in its Beach Boys-informed pop sensibility. Still, Psychedelic Horseshit will plunk down some squeals and cracks à la Black Dice just to make sure nothing gets too nice.
For the most part, Psychedelic Horseshit sticks to the tried and true in terms of melody, revamping Ramones-type melodies (which are themselves already revamps). “Another Side” rehashes Bob Dylan, with a melody pretty close to “I Don’t Believe You (She Acts Like We Never Met)”, off — you guessed it — Another Side of Bob Dylan. Psychedelic Horseshit adds (shitty) harmonica and some island-inspired silly programmed block percussion. But these guys always seem to do the retreading knowingly, with a critical ear. Even the off-kilter rhythm of the drum rhythm is so high up in the mix, so obviously programmed, that the band dares you to question its taste. This is the ultimate defiance of noise-influenced music: It makes the listener wonder what part of the sound and composition is intentional and what is a left-in mistake.
Though most of the songs stick to pop sensibility even as they undermine it, the best track might be the one with the least catchy melody. “Revolution Wavers” — see, there are the “waves” again — has a basic backbeat drum machine rhythm, almost like early hip-hop, and a thick swath of synths and vocals that rise and fall with the chords. The second half of the song goes into double time and it ends with an instrumental section full of crystalline synths. This song is followed by the interesting “Dead on Arrival”, which plays with poppy backup vocals. Horseshit’s mumbled, stoner drawl is parroted by female vocals talk singing the same words and buried in the mix. The girl-group drumbeat added to the strange backup vocals points to the genre Psychedelic Horseshit is playing with.
In the end, Psychedelic Horseshit may have gone “clean” to the extent that they lost the maxed-out fuzzy guitars and replaced them with shimmering synths and acoustic guitar tracks. But the aesthetic that disallows easy listening while seducing you with simple melodies is not gone — and that paradoxical aesthetic may be what we really mean when we say lo-fi. The only drawback is that it typically makes some inconsistent albums. Laced is good and fun, but not entirely memorable; the melodies fade back into the pop encyclopedia and the synth noises lose their sheen. Maybe the lack of guitars somehow makes Psychedelic Horseshit lose a sense of urgency — but not the edge of an ironic take on the state of indie pop.