The incredible thing about discovering a genuinely good band is that it has the ability to throw your entire world out of whack.
The Gris Gris are cooler than your older cousin's garage rock band, the one that first introduced you to a world outside of MTV. They're grittier than that home-recorded cassette you bought at your first punk rock show, and they're more revolutionary than the moment you realized it was OK to like the music that your parents listen to. They're alchemists turning the sonic side of air into brilliant, vaporous gold that bleeds into the ear and makes us forget to be cynical.
That's a huge feat in a music-saturated society where a spot on The O.C. or Volkswagen-advert ambiance defines a career. We forget to say, "Hey, this is totally informed by the early Stones." We forget to say, "Remember Red Krayola? Remember ’60s psych-garage rock? These guys totally sound like that." We forget to judge, and we just listen.
When Greg Ashley, the Houston-born multi-instrumentalist formerly of garage-revivalist outfit the Mirrors, moved to the Bay Area in April 2002, it was for a girl. Soon he teamed up with bassist Oscar Michel and drummer Joe Haener (both former members of San Francisco's Rock and Roll Adventure Kids) and started fleshing out songs he had written in Texas. "The band just accidentally happened," Ashley explains. In fact, when the trio first started playing shows together, they didn't even have a name. "We used to play as the Mirrors,” he says, “just because I had records I could sell at shows." Before long they were signed to Birdman Records (the label suggested that the band name themselves — pronto) and the Gris Gris became legit.
Playing house parties, warehouses, and dive bars and touring constantly, the Gris Gris may not be our biggest musical export, but with only two albums under their belts — 2004's self-titled debut and last year's For the Season (which includes newest member Lars Kullberg on keys) — the Oakland band is reshaping the Bay Area's legacy.
Some of their songs are grating, deconstructed blues masterpieces dripping with the eccentric sensibilities of Syd Barrett or that guy you tripped over in the street this morning. They go down like the cough syrup that gets you through the winter — the one you've always secretly loved the taste of.
The Gris Gris startle. They remind us that there is beauty in grit. Their well-constructed lullabies numb you with drooping saxophones, tenderly shaken tambourines, hazy guitars, and gentle lyrics. The dragging gem "Mary #38" is probably the 38 billionth song to be written about some girl named Mary — but it is the only one you will ever need to know.
Much like a dust storm sweeping the countryside, gathering little pieces of the landscape wherever it touches down, the Gris Gris possess a topographical romance in their range. From the sparse desert tickled with succulents to lushly fertile forests, the band writes the frontier. After one listen you are stuck asking yourself, "Where the hell is there to go from here?"
Here is a band that operates with an antiquated ethos, from a time before anyone could sing with a straight face about lovely lady lumps and before painstakingly choreographed treadmill routines and entourages of Harajuku girls became entertainment. Back when the point of making music didn't involve sounding like the band on the cover of last month's NME. Once upon a time music could excite, terrify, confuse, and exhilarate. The Gris Gris are raising the dead, conjuring a time when that one song tugged at some buried thing in heart or head and made you feel like you had been missing out on something big. Who doesn't love an epiphany every now and again? (K. Tighe)