Listening to the queue of records in my “To Review” pile (MV&EE, Woods, Amps For Christ, and some less notables), I’m starting to gather that lo-fi psychedelic folk is back in vogue. It’s a genre that seems to drift back into the limelight every few years. For whatever reason, it seems to be on a faster popularity cycle than just about any other subgenre, so it’s never surprising to see it crop up. And I can’t say I mind, either. I’m a sucker for that lo-fi psychfolk, the way it blends down-home with way-out, its stoned technicolor intimacy, and it’s weird, honey-sweetened little melodies.
The melodies are the key, really. Without those, it’s just an exercise in poor judgment. (Hey man, let’s get high and play with a tape recorder. Far fuckin’ out.) But those little Beatles-colored ditties, well, their charm will always be deadly.
And so, White Fence on Family Perfume is a deadly force, at least most of the time. Songs like “Balance Yr Heart” and “Do You Know Ida Know” illuminate everything that’s right with this sort of music. The former is an instant classic, all refrains and jolting lo-fi incongruence, soft-spoken and homespun. The latter is as catchy as they come but subdued, ya know? The vocals play between an earnest ’60s-cum-Elephant-6 lead and a sugary retro chorus of frail aliens.
In fact, the whole run there, tracks one to seven, is pure gold. Bouncing from R&B intimations (“Swagger Vets and Double Moon”, “Long White Curtain”) to hints of punk (“Down PNX”), the songs cohere thanks to their buzzing, analog production. The guitars have that pick-y vintage tube sound with woody hollow-body resonance, while organs warble quietly in the background.
There’s some chaff on this double album too, but oddly enough, I don’t think I’d have it any other way. There’s something about the psychedelic double album that’s not supposed to be concise or efficient. It’s supposed to be defuse, dialated.
That’s not to say I dig the less focused numbers, where the experimental bent breaks free from the tight structures of songwriting. These pieces aren’t particularly original nor are they exceptionally enjoyable. What they accomplish is making some sort of druggy soil in which the other songs can flourish. And some have their moments, like the cool drum beats that show up a few minutes into “It Will Never Be”.
There are plenty of other great little numbers, Lennon-McCartney-styled lullabies like “Hey Roman Nose” and introspective childlike tunes like “Lizards First”. The genre doesn’t change, but each song does pass through the tinted glass of a different set of influences. The surfy “Upstart Girls” fits snuggly against the country-inflected “Stomach Sexes”. The guitar in “Anna” takes a cue from Big Star, but the vocals are more Johnny Cash than Chilton.
A few songs err by taking the home-style Americana too far. The result can sound a bit precious (see “Hope Servatude I Have No”), but luckily those songs are the exception, not the rule. Simplicity done right, as on “Be at Home”, blends serene and intimate tunes with psyched out guitars and organ, twisting out of tune, stumbling out of sync, tripping through an arrangement.
While Family Perfume treads familiar ground, it does it well, as well as anyone since the weird ramblings of Elephant 6’s Olivia Tremor Control and Apples in Stereo. Good melodies, weird noises, basement tape production — what’s not to love?