A fuzzed-out three-note bass guitar riff swirls like a stumbling drunk. Whiskey-crazed guitars and primal drums smash against the rhythm like a half-empty bottle of Jim Beam against a bar. A blistered Jim Morrison-meets-Iggy Pop sneer tears into the proceedings.
And yet, thirty seconds into the first track of Low Flying Owls' latest album, Elixir Vitae, all I can think is: Whoa, this song would totally rock in a TV commercial.
The Sacramento, California quartet's sophomore release unashamedly combines every leather-clad or drug-related rock 'n' roll reference point from the Doors to Pink Floyd to the NME's beloved 21st century garage-rock revival. If these guys were from New York City, they'd be your little brother's favorite band. They even...
Wait. This song was in a TV commercial! I'd heard the track, "Glad to be Alive", shilling for cars -- I forget which brand. "So glad to be alive", lead singer Jared Southard had proclaimed, as if challenging me to disagree. "So glad to be alive / So glad, so glad, yeah!"
I can't help but wonder: Did I initially think the song should be in a commercial because of something innate within the song -- say, the comfortable banality of its rebelliousness -- or because I subconsciously remembered hearing it during a break from my daily rerun of The Simpsons?
This quandary brings me to the Low Flying Owls' most irritating characteristic. You see, it's impossible to separate the effects of their music from the effects of the cultural and musical contexts it attempts to evoke.
Do I find myself describing their songs in substance-laden language because they actually sound like the stuff of drunkenness and acid trips, or because they quote extensively from more innovative music that does? Does their sonic rebelliousness seem vaguely corporatized to me because I know "Glad to be Alive" appeared in a commercial, or because the band takes too few chances? Do I enjoy (enter song's name here) because it's good, or because it reminds me of the Black Rebel Motorcycle Club song that reminds me of the Oasis song that reminds of the Jesus & Mary Chain song that...
Does it matter?
Well, yes. Low Flying Owls are a competent, disciplined band on Elixir Vitae, but creative they're not. They simply toss together garage and acid rock, tack on some forgettably stoned lyrics -- "Let's swim away / When we're tired we'll drown together", Southard chants in "Beaches of Tomorrow", typical in that its words are neither particularly good nor particularly bad -- and claim the result as their own.
Try as Low Flying Owls might to channel the Stooges on the first three tracks, those "Smoke on the Water" bass riffs lack freshness. As dreamy and pretty as the instrumental "Babies Made" is, it's nowhere near as beautiful as the space rock on Spritualized's Ladies and Gentleman We Are Floating in Space. (And hey, didn't Jason Pierce tackle the garage-rock phenomenon on last year's Amazing Grace? Hmm...)
When the smoke clears and we all come down (was that drug allusion due to druggy music or allusions to druggy music?), the Low Flying Owls' biggest problem is that none of these songs is distinctive -- well, aside from one line in "Swingin' Sam" about a "cross-dressing, HIV-positive husband"... and that's memorable for all the wrong reasons.
Crossing acid rock and garage rock isn't a bad idea, and Low Flying Owls execute it well. But what's there to get excited about?