Music Reviews
Napa Asylum

Sic Alps Napa Asylum

(Drag City) Rating - 9/10

Have you ever heard Pleasures & Treasures?  In 2007, I was in a Philadelphia record store, sort of propped in front of the new releases like living wannabe-hip sculpture.  A brick of CDs in one hand, maybe some thin LPs warming underneath my armpit, I had limited funds and unlimited wants, (we’ve all been there), so I was in the process of making sure I had what I wanted before redistributing my hard-earned wealth. 

Pleasures & Treasures caught my attention: a simple, green rusty shitbox of a van seemingly abandoned, the band’s name, SIC ALPS, almost subtly scrawled in Krylon.  There was a handwritten description Sharpie’d on the plastic along with some information about the members’ previous or other bands: The Coachwhips, The Hospitals, (like I knew who they were).  On impulse, the CD was added to the pile and garnered quite a response from the record store cashier:

“Aw, dude,” he said holding the CD in his hands.  “This is great, man.  You’re going to love this!” 

“Rock on,” I thought.

I didn’t like it.  I didn’t hate it, but its lax attention to rhythm or melody and its combination of high-intensity screech and imperfectly reverb-laden vocals offended me to some degree.  I was ready to write Pleasures & Treasures off as a bad purchase, a momentary weakness enabled by hipster word-of-mouth and strange cover art.  Victimized by an abstract independent film of a sales pitch.

But, I listened to it, again.  And then I listened to it some more.  Not even thirty minutes in length, reconsidering Pleasures & Treasures proved no real investment of my time and, if it justified the monetary expense, seemed worth the effort.  I cycled through again and again, going into hours, going into days, going into weeks.  A month later I wrote a review of the album and praised it for a couple things.  First off, as the vintage sound of garage rock revivalism was beginning to churn out some very humdrum sonic monotony, Sic Alps represented a true underground alternative to the mainstream’s overflow.  The buzz and howl this band generated was more than mere blues-influenced, 60s nostalgia or Stooges/Velvets proto punk posturing: the 90s were in there, too, poetic complacency that didn’t seem the byproduct of old equipment or paint-by-numbers regurgitation.

Second, Pleasures & Treasures was ALL risk and no bullets.  The closest this album comes to radio-friendly record store bait is Semi-Streets, which brims with slo-mo Lou Reed ‘tude and excessive strumming treble.  For this album, it’s the gentlest on the ears.  For many other bands, it’d an alienating art statement.

Talking, though, about Sic Alps’ new album, Napa Asylum, (the one-time duo of Mike Donovan and Matthew Hartman now accompanied by Comets of Fire! drummer, Noel Von Harmonson), arrives two and a half years after its predecessor, 2008’s U.S. EZ.  The reverb is intact, the distortion playfully fucked with; the folk influences properly confined to the 60s, their noise sensibilities still owing itself to mid-80s/early 90s counterculture. 

Napa Asylum, though, is the band’s most musical venture.  With U.S. EZ, Hartman and Donovan worked more toward melody, their sonic experiments, no matter how strange, at least somewhat structured.  Napa Asylum has even less disarray and more music, whatever acidic tendencies toward aural friction minimized, crafting melody-concerned culture shock to those of us accustomed to volumes of feedback.  It’s also twenty-two songs and a little over 45 minutes: their lengthiest studio LP.

As far as creative development is concerned, Sic Alps’ pop-injected psychedelia presents a more refined device for the band.  There’s still resignation in their tone, sort of a verbal nonchalance that’s supported by the slow moving Jolly and then the mutating atonal conjuring of Eat HappyDo You Want To Give $$? struts along, bass thick and strong, a memorable standout with a hook that keeps playing long after the song ends.  And, then there are solid shots of melody in Saint Peter Writes His Book, followed by the flurrying guitar notes in Zeppo Epp.

The overt fuzztone of sludgy floor tom of Trip Train lead into a burning and chaotic guitar solo that’s about as musical as a fork’s interaction with a china plate.  But, it’s one of the album’s best moments, just an onslaught of reverb-laden turbulence that brings some insubordination to the band’s newfound penchant for musicality.  Up until Trip Train, the album is folk-ish and rock-ish, no real rambunctious drain on the ears other than the scrapings of Eat Happy, or the album’s OTHER semi-assault, The First White Man to Touch California Soil, a squeal and distorted pronouncement followed by loud cymbal/snare combos.  Another broken guitar solo cuts zigzags through the mire.

And while garage-influenced pop tunes and psych/punk rawness nabs the attention, Napa Asylum has ponderous moments, a song like the slow, bass-thumbing Ranger sort of calming.  Super Max Lament on the Way plays like a THC-riddled Silent Night, out of sorts lullaby-tinged melancholia.  Interlude-worthy moments like My Lai Lai, Wasted At Church or March of the Skies provide strange breaks between the actual songs.

So, this may be Sic Alps’ best album to date.  Question is, is it the best because it’s more coherent than past efforts, or is it the best because it represents the perfect culmination of their growing musical ability and their identifying sound?  Accessibility seems a trait that surfaces upon compromise, but that doesn’t seem to the case here.  As Pleasures & Treasures revealed beneath its external experimentalism potential to do more, Napa Asylum is the realization I was expecting. 

Nathan Livingston Maddox cycles in reverse for its last few seconds, the green shitbox backing off the peak and perhaps finding a new way to proceed.  We'll see where the new path leads.