Retro garage-rock that's fun, full of hooks, and thankfully doesn't sound lo-fi.
Phylums’ debut album, Phylum Phyloid, is a pleasant blast of retro garage rock. The Milwaukee-based band is made up of veterans of other local Wisconsin acts, which shows in the generally tight performances on the record. It’s also worth noting that although Phylums recorded the album using old-school analog tape, Phyloids doesn’t sound like it was recorded in a tin shack and it isn’t covered in a thin sheen of white noise. It’s to the band’s credit that they understand that a retro sound doesn’t equate to shitty audio.
Most of these songs are upbeat, short, and to the point. “Crummy Side of Town” is a perfect example. It starts with a catchy riff played on guitar, is quickly joined by a tom-heavy drumbeat, and then snotty but not too nasally vocals. The earworm chorus, “You can’t let your guard down / When you live on the crummy side of town” is followed by a restatement of the opening riff that slides right into the second verse. There’s a short bridge, a surf-rock guitar solo, and then the chorus hits one last time. It’s all over in less than three minutes and the band is on to the next song.
Aside from the mocking “Bottle of Wine” (“We’re so refined / With a bottle of wine”) Phylums largely eschew boy-girl love songs for slice of life or generally ridiculous lyrics. The album opens with the driving “Can’t Get Through”, a tale about the band trying to get from Detroit to Toronto but getting stopped at the border. “Time Capsule” features the chorus “You and me we don’t fit in / To the time and place we’re in”, and seems to literally be about be sealed into a time capsule to hopefully wake up in the future. “Absurdity” buried most of its verses underneath the guitars, but the refrain “Absurdity / Nothing else makes sense to me” cuts right through. The buzzy rave-up “I Gotta Know” is a light-hearted meditation on the afterlife, featuring the album’s fuzziest guitar tones accompanied by an equally fuzzy synth sound.
Small deviations like those fuzzy synths keep Phylum Phyloid from just being 30 straight minutes of essentially the same song 12 times. The biggest departure comes on the slow, moody “Route 66”, with a pulsing bass, clean hollow body guitar, and barely-there percussion. Elsewhere, most of the variety comes from Phylums’ canny use of keyboards and a heavy reliance on the tambourine, which I’ll get to in a minute. Standout track “Cold Coffee” has some strong dual arpeggiated guitar lines, but it’s the jaunty organ sound that really provides the song’s musical hook. Similarly, album closer “Go Home” has a simple, catchy chorus that’s just “Go home!” with “Go home!” immediately echoed in backing vocals. But the song’s combination of just a touch distorted guitar and carnival-style organ makes it seem like a garage rock take on instrumental post-rockers Battles’ signature sound. And then there’s the tambourine. Omnipresent throughout the album, to my ears it sounds like Phylums’ drummer has completely removed his hi-hat cymbal and just replaced it with a tambourine. That is a subtle but distinct change from the standard rock set up that makes the band sound unique.
The songs on Phylum Phyloid are the kind that get stuck in your head after a few listens. The band has an ear for hooks, but they’re not necessarily the kind that lodge in your mind right away. Phylums definitely has a good thing going here and they manage to sound retro without feeling slavishly devoted to the ‘60s music that inspired them. That’s a difficult thing to do. The result is a solid album that feels light and fun without being too jokey, which is also a sweet spot that is not easy to hit. With the sterling reputation of Dirtnap Records supporting them, this is a band that could stick around for a long time.