Author: Nic Smith

The Black Watch
Sugarplum Fairy, Sugarplum Fairy
Pop Culture Press
Street: 01.27
The Black Watch = Billy Bragg + Built to Spill + Tears for Fears

For their impressive 18th release, the LA-based indie group The Black Watch put together a collection of earnest songs that seem to both expand and contain the audible emotional complexity of their primary songwriter, John Andrew Frederick. The album title is a nod an outtake gem found in The Beatles’ “A Day in the Life,” and the record as a whole seems to convey the same tired sentiment of Lennon’s line, “I read the news today, oh boy.” However, the album plays much more like British new wave. Songs like “Scream” and “Quietly Now” surprise the usual tone of melancholy verses into shoegaze jamming with heavy drum lines. Although this band still belongs to the spirit of ’90s indie rock, there’s a satisfying sincerity in Frederick’s lyrics and presentation. If any of these descriptions interest you, keep this album around for the days when you’re feeling moody. –Nic Smith

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Dead Water EP

Mortigi Tempo
Dead Water EP

Self-Released
Street: 05.02
Mortigi Tempo = Albino Father + Black Rebel Motorcycle Club

The Dead Water EP is a two-track release that reveals a new, heavier direction from the Provo-based trio. Opening with “Wake Me,” Mortigi Tempo build off a small riff and steady rhythm toward a massive wash of guitar tones and calling harmonies. In a refreshing way, “Wake Me” feels almost spiritual in its aims—psychedelic but reaching toward enlightenment. From here, the EP turns toward “Dead Water,” which is a more conventional drone-psych track in its fuzz and head-nodding patterns. It’s probably a hell of a lot of fun to play, but the craftsmanship of the second song falls short of the first. However, if you’re keeping watch of the local psych rock scene, check out this bite-size EP. I’m hoping it’s a sign of more to come. –Nic Smith

Foxygen| Hang | Jagjaguwar

Foxygen 
Hang

Jagjaguwar
Streets: 01.20
Foxygen = Electric Light Orchestra + Ariel Pink + Destroyer

When the glam rock revival duo Sam France and Jonathan Rado released …And Star Power in 2014, the daunting, 24-track release pushed away many listeners who were initially hooked by the sounds found in We Are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace & Magic—and understandably so. At the time, …And Star Power felt like a digression—a handful of practice tapes had been dumped onto your lap. It was raw, sure, but it was an album revisited only by the super-fans and the critics. Now, back and with stride, Foxygen’s fifth album, Hang (named after the last track in …And Star Power), stands as their most ambitious and realized work to date—rewriting the narrative of all of their previous work as building blocks towards this record.

While the old-school sounds are part of the equation, Foxygen’s je ne sais quois has always been their affinity for the theater component of live rock shows. Thus, it seemed like a no-brainer when the duo decided to include a 40-piece symphony orchestra into every song on the album. The opening track, “Follow The Leader,” kicks off with a Jeff Lynne–esque flair, complete with backing vocalists and swelling horns. And though it’s still undeniably a Foxygen album, the listening experience is totally different from anything they’ve released previously—taking on an experience similar to hearing a musical. The following track, “Avalon,” for example, has a chorus that sometimes sounds like Supertramp, sometimes like ABBA and sometimes like Lou Reed covering Billy Joel. Listening, I want to point to a million places in their sound to find the source, but it’s always elusive. They reach too high to be labeled as just being revivalist or derivative. Instead, Foxygen are composing in their own right. Their second single, “America,” hops from sweeping ballad to spooky overture to jazzy two-step in a way that’s both unexpected and impressive, especially if you’ve primarily thought of them as just “that one band who wrote ‘San Francisco.’”

Lyrically, though, Hang doesn’t provide many lines that stand out in the way that similar artists like, say, Dan Bejar do. France’s messages are often positive and typically assert self-affirmation for the listener. However, because of the grandiosity of the music, they sometimes come off as empty “Oh, baby’s” or lack a feeling of direction. Foxygen sing about love, eccentric artists and taking direction over one’s life. With a little more wit, this album would be a knockout. Still, the lack thereof isn’t necessarily a deal-breaker. Foxygen are pulling for big emotions with the vintage sounds of big-city dramatics, and they still get there. It’s a hard sell to discount the lament of “Trauma” or the accusatory feeling of “Mrs. Adams.”

In the final song, “Rise Up” (did I just hear a timpani?), France sings, “Everybody wonders where the red fern grows / Listen to your own dreams / Nobody else’s will do.” Again, not exactly inspiring on paper, but the music in the outro carries it so that the album ends with the same celebratory bravado that it began with. From here, I hope to see Foxygen becoming comfortable with the scale required to handle their new style while growing as songwriters to push these boundaries. If nothing else, kudos to France and Rado for carving out a niche sound while still making it feel like they’re enjoying themselves. Let’s see how they pull this off live. (The State Room, 04.05)  Nic Smith

PTO
Jealousy Song / Wants to be Wanted 7”
Self-Released
Street: 11.14.14
PTO = Weezer + OK Go + Built to Spill

PTO are a band that reminds me of the earlyto mid-2000s era of punk rock that is sometimes indie and sometimes radio pop. For a local group, PTO mixed their instruments really well, and I enjoyed their tight percussion lines. The singer is refreshingly underproduced, which gives their sound an old-school, independent feel, and their angsty lyrics about being confused by the nature of relationships adds to their aura of teenage nostalgia. However, this recently released 7” contains two songs from their full-length album, “Pointless” from back in 2012. If you haven’t listened to this in its entirety, the 7” implies a much more Fountains of Wayne–type of band than some of the other songs they’ve come out with. That being said, this EP is a nice punk rock sampler, but I can’t help but wonder what PTO has been up to since then. –Nic Smith

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Alex Calder
Strange Dreams
Captured Tracks
Street: 01.20
Alex Calder = Deerhunter + Beach Fossils + Mac DeMarco
 
Alex Calder is a member of the recent psych-rock genus that’s emerged within the last six years, which I can most accurately describe as “VCR-core.” You know what I mean: the sleepy, dreamy style that seems to seek out the eerie effect that your tape/VHS player used to have when the strip was warped. In Strange Dreams, you’ll find plenty of this—dreary guitar tones, reverbed vocals that are sometimes apathetic and sometimes lonely, and a vague sense of technological nostalgia. I found myself getting longingly contemplative to the star-like riff found in “The Morning” and caught the grooves of “Strange Dreams” and “Life Purpose.” However, after listening to this album a few times, I could not help but hear all of Calder’s work being entirely outdone by an easy comparison to Mac DeMarco. Calder just doesn’t share his element of humor and easiness, which redeems this genre’s oppressive feeling of warped-out boredom. Although, if DeMarco is a bit too accessible for you, Calder might just be the guy to show you how to really bum yourself out. –Nic Smith 
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Emotional Mugger

Ty Segall
Emotional Mugger

Drag City
Street: 01.22
Ty Segall = WAND + Queens of the Stone Age’s Era Vulgaris

It’s official: Ty Segall is over himself. It took eight solo albums (and then some) of elevating his old-school teenage-boy rock into a celebrated international event before he could properly gut the beast and turn its corpse inside out for an 11-track collection of some beautifully mangled anti-anthems. It’s risky, it’s messy and it’s unsettling, but Emotional Mugger is doing something new enough to earn pause—even if only to silently mouth the phrase, “What the fuck?”

Unlike the smoothly executed tracks found in 2014’s Manipulator, almost every song on Emotional Mugger takes place in a state of manic anxiety. Starting with the lumbering riff of “Squealer,” Segall flaunts his own ability to build and release sonic tension as the line “Cut my finger / hurts to push it down” introduces a vision-blurring bass resolve. Other tracks like “Baby Big Man” and “Emotional Mugger / Leopard Priestess” follow suit in this way: small treats of jam in the midst of jarring electric chatter. However, it would be a mistake to say that this aspect makes the tracks predictable. Segall seems to be constantly resisting his own tendency to create easily headbang-able power rock songs and instead attempts to tame the noisy parts of his string-bending brain. Sometimes he does this irresponsibly, like the completely useless and overly conceptual “W.U.O.T.W.S.” (a kind of Segallian “Revolution 9”), but most of the songs feel purposeful in their challenges toward the listener. In fact, Segall is actually the most impressive when he builds a perceptible groove within what would otherwise be the musical equivalent of a seizure trigger. “The Magazine,” for example, is somehow undeniably hypnotic, despite the lead instrument sounding akin to the screeching mating call of dial-up Internet and a note-less (but nevertheless gratifying) solo in which he just strangles the shit out of his guitar.

If this is starting to sound a little unappetizing, I don’t mean to suggest that this album is all business or some torturous treasure that you “just have to listen to one more time” to enjoy. Yes, it’s abrasive at points, but it’s still having fun with itself. The undoubtedly FUZZ-inspired track “Diversion” is perhaps the moment of most clarity on the album (and thus humorously named) with its straightforward delivery of the heavy, and “Squealer Two” incorporates elements of funk with its wobbling bass tones and falsetto harmonies. The album isn’t trying to push you away— rather, it invites you along to explore the potential validity of misfit sounds. Segall hints to this in the track “Candy Man” where he chants “Pick me up / I am done / candy’s gone / no more fun,” which, given the musical content and reccurring theme of “candy” in this album, it wouldn’t be a stretch to interpret this line as Segall’s changed attitude toward his songwriting style as he departs from the more accessible expectations of the psych rock genre—that, or, you know, drugs.

As a whole, Emotional Mugger is easy to get down with as long as you know where to focus without getting distracted or overwhelmed by the peripheral madness—i.e., having a consciousness—i.e., it’s good psych rock. To be frank, Segall could have easily turned out another classic-style album, and his fans would have eaten it up, but he didn’t. In the ever-growing world of genre demanders and pigeonholers, trustworthy aesthetics are the chains of creative prison. So I applaud Segall’s step into uncomfortable territory. It’s the real deal. (Urban 03.12)

Moon Duo 
Shadow of the Sun 
Sacred Bones
Street: 03.05
Moon Duo = Psychic Ills + Night Beats 
 
For their third album, lunar pair Ripley Johnson (of Wooden Shjips) and Sanae Yamada have created a nine-track collection of psychedelic jams. I mean “jams” quite deliberately. Although on point at times, Moon Duo seem to have a formula, which consists of looping drum patterns and riffs for five minutes with reverbed vocals serving mostly as garnish. This is not to say that the album is totally boring. In fact, it’s rather hypnotic at times. Tracks like “Zero” (which is oddly Arcade Fire– esque) and “In A Cloud” daze and meander across cosmic soundscapes. However, this is where the remarkability ends. The remainder of the album is fast-paced with head-bobbing tracks such as “Wildling” and “Animal.” Though fast and fun, the only track I found myself replaying was “Free The Skull” in my attempts to mentally source its blatant theft of what I eventually recognized as Foghat’s “Slow Ride.” This album is great for throwing on while you’re busy working on other things, but I would chalk this one up as just another garage-psych band who’s good at keeping to form. –Nic Smith 
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The Boys Ranch – Self-Titled

The Boys Ranch – Self-Titled

The Boys Ranch
Self-Titled

CCG Records
Street: 10.10.15
The Boys Ranch = Johnathan Rice + Jan & Dean + Little Joy

This beachy EP from SLC natives The Boys Ranch is a collection of four tracks that hearken back to the clean, surf pop sounds of yesteryear (complete with the standard boom-tat-tat-boom-tat drum lines). Unlike the recent trend of beach-goth artists, The Boys Ranch use more classic, lighthearted guitar tones. In tunes like “In the Sun (Surf Song)” and “Surf’s Up Beaches,” the band throws no curveballs in its embrace of the almost forgotten swing of a West Coast, beach-side prom band. From a distance, the album is a nice enough listen from the impressive multi-instrumentalist Dennis Fuller as he takes on yet another genre. However, among its differences between songs, the EP succeeds in its production of the slow, jazzy number “In The Shade (Turf Song),” which seems the most genuine in its freedom from the pop-cultural “surf” sound. With the inclusion of horns and the doo-wop bass vocal line, The Boys Ranch bring a welcome change to my expectations—it’s patient and serene in a way that is evocative of an earlier 20th Century relationship to waterfront relaxation and leisure. At other times in the EP, especially in the song “Mine Mine Mine,” I wonder if this release is just dumbing itself down by pandering to the Californian revivalism of beach culture. However, in their chamber pop–inspired sounds, Fuller shows the most of himself in his influences, which makes him charming and provocative in his kinship with artists like Beirut. Because The Boys Ranch do not possess the grit and the dirtiness that characterizes the beach goth/surf platform, I hear in them more of a potential to reorient the style back toward the sophisticated and the classical. If they make a full album, I’m hoping to hear more tracks like “In The Shade.” It’s a real gem. –Nic Smith

Damaged Bug – Bunker Funk

Damaged Bug
Bunker Funk

Castle Face
Street: 3.10
Damaged Bug = Ty Segall + Animal Collective + Gøggs 

Under the moniker of Damaged Bug, Thee Oh Sees’ frontman John Dwyer adds to his already hefty discography with this year’s release of his third solo album. Much like previous Damaged Bug records, Dwyer maintains his sporadic and stream-of-consciousness playing style that, while flirting with traditional psychedelic sounds, weirds a lot harder than it rocks. Still, it’s a good time, though I wouldn’t recommend it on a hangover.

The album begins deceptively with the gentle, 26-second intro “Structure Image Approach” before hitting you with the blaring, modulated synth screech of “Bog Dash”—a track that resembles an early Ty Segall number stripped of reverbed vocals and big guitar effects. Like some of his noise-artist contemporaries, Dwyer juxtaposes aggressive, almost note-less static chatter with slick drum and bass lines to produce the effect of fighting for one’s sanity. It’s definitely destabilizing, but good psychedelic music has to do its job of both overwhelming the listener as well as providing a grounding line for one’s attention. The drums and bass are useful throughout the album in this sense, especially later in Dwyer’s more double-black-diamond-bizarre tracks, such as “Ugly Gamma” and “No One Notice The Fly.”

Stylistically, Bunker Funk feels almost like a direct response to the work of Wand and the turn of Ty Segall’s sound found in Emotional Mugger—he even adopts that same singing voice of a mystic medieval villain. However, given their camaraderie in the L.A. psych scene, Bunker Funk comes off more as a dialogue than a theft of style. Some tracks are definitely branded with Dwyer’s oddities, which just couldn’t have been produced by anyone else. “The Cryptologist,” for example, unfolds out of one continuous bouncing bass riff, and in the following, “Slay The Priest,” Dwyer makes a head-banger out of a single, melting synth sound. Still, though the album starts strong, Dwyer eventually drifts too deep into experimental territory to be really enjoyable—unless perhaps you’re the kind of theory-head who feels inspired by modern phenomena like teakettles and the noises made by workplace machinery. I mean, sure, he seems to be having a fun time playing around with synthesizers and modulating guitar effects, but it’s not quite coherent enough to be provocative. Surprisingly, the title track is one of the weakest, with its high-pitched trills serving as a kind of anti-hook. Listening, it wasn’t until the bright guitar riff of “Unmanned Scanner” (I’ll admit, probably the most accessible track on the album) that I remembered I was listening to the frontman of Thee Oh Sees.

Now, I’m sure that if Dwyer wanted to make another Oh Sees album, he would have. After 16 releases with his main band, he’s probably itching to make anything that’s at least a couple steps removed. However, unless you’re a superfan of Dwyer’s music, the entire Damaged Bug project feels like it’s not really for anyone but himself. In my opinion, he probably should have waited to release this until he had a handle on the spirit that was behind the first four tracks of Bunker Funk. But hey, you know, new music is new music, and it’s at least a good sign that Dwyer and the other psych leaders are not trying to just sound vintage anymore. –Nic Smith

Wand
Golem
In The Red Recordings
Street: 3.17
Wand = Ty Segall + Tame Impala
 
On the heels of their previous album, Ganglion Relief, Wand have certainly turned the heavy crank for their newest release, Golem. Frontman Cory Thomas Hanson seems to be charging headfirst into his psychedelic influences and craftily blurs the line between flower power and heavy metal. Songs like “Self Hypnosis In 3 Days” and “Cave In” drag the listener from skull-driving verses to thoughtful refrains and back again. Listening, I never quite felt comfortable in one place. Each song contains its own twists and turns, which provides an individual trip to every track. That being said, Golem does pretty well at keeping its feet on the ground. Even with the panning synth effects and moments of Doppler freak-outs, Wand emphasize their Black Sabbath–ian riffs in a way that keeps my ears focused on the progression of their tunes. Golem is very much a headbanger’s album, and although Ty Segall/Fuzz seem to have staked out this territory pretty firmly, it definitely wouldn’t hurt to bring a little more Wand into your life. –Nic Smith 
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