The more I write about music, the more I'm convinced that music criticism is a preening echo chamber of esoteric aesthetics bandied about by people so torn by their herd instincts that every sentence is a tortured approximation of rote individuality. But who's gonna give up free CDs out of some principled protest? Not this kid.
I say this because as I was listening to this album with my boyfriend, we got in a heated argument about why exactly I initially flicked it off. "It sounds like Pavement; it's derivative," I said, deciding that the rest of the opinion would write itself in my sleep. My boyfriend brought up several counter-arguments, including the fact that derivation doesn't automatically disqualify a record, nor is it always that easy to prove or assess a band's influences unless you explicitly know them. But there it was, my learned bigotry that, while it is acceptable to cite Willie Dixon as an influence, Stephen Malkmus needs to attain a higher level of greatness and then die before people should be able to crib his shit. I can't even explain why I think/thought that. I picked it up like intellectual crabs. Being impressed and having bands that push boundaries are certainly opportunities for music critics to flex, but they aren't necessarily the best yard sticks for records. Most of this yammering caveat might mean zilch to you, but I thought I would at least admit that the reasons I find Garlic lackluster might be the sorts of things most people don't give a shit about.
"Kathleen and Marie" screams Pavement, right down to the way Mike Wyzgowski's voice sounds like it's going to crack through the sheer implosive force of ironic indifference. Immediately shifting gears, they whip out a wallowing wash of steel pedal for a Wilco-lite obsessive love song called "Never Gonna Let You Go". While every band strives for a certain level of versatility, there's an equal danger in frequent genre skimming, which tends to make a band sound diluted and hollow. I can't help but feel that Garlic have a general, serviceable "alt-ness" to them that makes all the songs seem like the kind of Rolex you buy off some street person who just pushed up their trench coat sleeve. We all own albums this middling that we never get around to selling because it's such a close call, and because there's that one song that sounds like that other band that we love.
Though Garlic make their home in London, there's nothing here that would tie them to any particular UK scene. For that, they certainly deserve credit. "Weird Wood Soul" stands out as going a long way toward making a sound that stakes a unique claim. With its soft acoustic layers and Wyzgowski's sweetly strained chorus of "shake, baby, shake", it's a straight-ahead ace pop song that gives your tear ducts a soft pinch. Here, there are no wishy-washy country feints and no underwhelming rock-outs, just a well-crafted song that can't be accused of influence scavenging.
Where their country side sounds like it could stand to be dug in deeper and more defined, their rock songs skid out wholly half-assed. "One Think or Another" disintegrates its riff in sloppy drums, cheaply distorted Strokes vocals, and comically unaligned keyboard bubbles. It's one of those songs that just sits in the middle of the record like a turd on a nicely set dinner table. "Waverly" shoplifts turns of phrase (the hills of Beverly), affect, and a generally lumbering fuzzy pace from Pavement to virtually no effect other than theft recognition. Rather than showcasing range, asides like this simply act as planks in the indictment that Garlic haven't made a decision about what band they want to be or what kind of music to concentrate their efforts on. Not everyone can be Beck, and for those that can't, hunkering down and following a few artistic threads doesn't hurt.
Like I said earlier, despite my misgivings, I think this album is a keeper and possibly one that will subtly ingratiate itself over time. I just wish Garlic's artistic terra firma felt less like sponge cake, less like buckshot scattered wildly with only a few tracks squarely, if not accidentally, on the mark. If someone ever told me I had promise, I'd want to kick their teeth through their head. In the interests of not being a hypocrite, I'll just say that Garlic is a wait-and-see band that could easily stumble onto better things.