Twenty-some years and a dozen albums on, Pittsburgh's Cynics make a weathered, fuzzed and definitively, gloriously American rock and roll record. They just had to go to Spain to do it.
You know something fundamental about the Cynics' Here We Are when you learn that all but three of its retro-rocking cuts were recorded in mono. Never mind that stereo sound has been the standard for going on four decades, or that pristine digital sound can now be had in any bedroom for the cost of a couple of Xbox game. The Cynics have no interest in that. They've spent the last 20 years resolutely unaffected by fashion and technology, cranking out 1960s-influenced rock and roll that is absolutely authentic -- and in no way a technical exercise.
It's been five years since the Cynics' last album, the much more straightforwardly rocking Living Is the Best Revenge. Recording in Spain, where lots of garage-type bands seem to have an underground following, the band's founders Michael Kastelic and Gregg Kostelich expanded their line-up with local musicians. Alongside the Pittsburgh-Polish names of long-time regulars, you'll find new band members like Jorge Explosion (guitar and bass) and Parsley the Lion (organ). There are even some horns on the very Four Tops-ish "All About You", Spanish-grown possibly, but sounding just like the Motown band behind "I Can't Help Myself."
Here We Are is, perhaps, a more mature album, its songs weathered by experience but not at all compromised. You know from the first jangly-sad notes of "Here We Are", the album's wonderful title track, that this is not a young person's band anymore. The natural optimism of rock and roll is tempered by resignation, a sweetly melancholy recognition that nothing is forever, but "the air has a perfume/the sky has a sheen" and with friends around, life is very sweet indeed. The song has a raggedy charm, its parts -- the rich trill of organ, the circling guitar part, the gentle lilt of bass -- working together in scratchy harmony. It's very well made, as songs go, and expertly played, yet its surface is rough as a stubbly cheek.
The title track is the album's best, yet the rest is strong, too. Fuzz-crusted "Coming Round My Way" stalks and prowls like vintage Lyres, organ swelling in the crevices of staccato walking bass. "The Way" pounds the power chords like an old Who song, drums pounding chaotically all the way through. And "The Warning" bops along on a rockabilly riff, laid-back and harmonica-laced, until you get to the part where everyone in the band shouts "Hey." Don't all the best rock and roll songs have group shouts in them?
Sure, these songs have a whiff of history to them. The sitar-twangy "Me Wanting Her" is all day-glo 1968, while tremolo-laden "Last Mistake" feels like classic early 1960s surf. And, not once but several times, you'll hear the unmistakable furze and grind (and scream) of the Sonics.
Still the Cynics' old-fashioned influences work really as canvas and paints... what's important is what the band does with its materials. Here We Are is full of fire and soul and individual eccentricity. It's retro but not a copy of anything. This is a fantastic back-to-basics rock and roll album -- and not just for musical scholars.