Bay Area rock begins 2011 at a record pace, with new releases from Sic Alps, Young Prisms, and Sonny Smith
MUSIC As 2011 begins, Bay Area rock is wasting no time staking its claim. This month brings noteworthy albums by at least a handful of local groups and artists. I'll be covering them over the course of the next two weeks, beginning with a trio of new releases:
Since the late-2009 release of Young Prisms' self-titled EP on Mexican Summer, this Cali quintet has been hard at work. It put out three different split 7-inches: one with Weekend on Transparent; one with Small Black on Big Love; and one with Mathamagic on Atelier Ciseaux. In the wake of performances at last fall's CMJ conference, the band is set to release its first full-length, Friends For Now (Kanine Records), Jan. 19.
Once you get past Friends for Now's NSFW cover art — it's just a little nip, and only one at that — you'll enter into the title track, which blissfully rattles forward with undecipherable vocals, like a sun-bleached step into euphoria. "If You Want To" floats over waves of distortion; the only discernible lyrics are the title lines, nonchalantly chanted like an existential mantra. The single "Sugar" picks up the pace with yowling guitars.
The band also makes sure to include a smoke-break track, just as it did with "Four Twenty Friendly" on the Mexican Summer EP. Titled "All Day Holiday," this one is an under-a-minute wash of echoes and effects. The opening notes of "In Your Room" are dramatic, then radiant guitars emerge over rumbles of distorted bass. Friends For Now rounds out with tightened mixes of "Feel Fine" and "I Don't Get Much," which were both previously released, and closes with the hypnotic "Stay Awake." Taken together, the collection of songs is cohesive, capturing a sunlit aesthetic while giving the illusion of chaos.
Sonny Smith's approach to recording and issuing music is unique, accentuating its connections to visual art. Using his imagination along with the help of a rotating band, he assembled "100 Records," an art show that opened at San Francisco's Gallery 16 and then traveled to other venues. In "100 Records," Smith created releases by 100 different bands, coming up with names, bios, songs, and album art. Now Smith is releasing 10 of those songs as 100 Records, Volume Two: I Miss the Jams, a package of five, 7-inch singles or a single CD.
Listening to I Miss the Jams, you'll never think "every song sounds the same," since each fabricated band has its own rock 'n' roll aesthetic. The album opens with Zig Speck's "One Times Doomsday Trip to Nowhere," an unshackled surf-jam sung by Ty Segall. Starting off with a bang, "Teenage Thugs" is complete with gunshots and Spanish verses. The doo-wop track "I Wanna Do It" includes a surf-rock wipeout interlude and showcases Heidi Alexander' (from the Sandwitches) wailing cries, which evoke a classic pin-up doll. Hank Champion's country track is spoken, and more straightforward than a Doors song, with literal lyrics that tell the depressing tale of its title character, "Broke Artist at the Turn of the Century," and how he got there.
Smith plays with rock star cliché, but never makes his characters seem two-dimensional. Providing us with a Bay-Area-rock-scene parallel universe, Smith makes us question what is real and what is not.
Sic Alps has been recording and releasing music since 2004. The band had a prolific 2008, putting out two full-lengths. In the fall of 2009, it released a 7-inch single on Slumberland, toured with Magik Markers, and made up one-half of a 12-inch split release on Yik Tak. The next year began with a handful of shows opening for Sonic Youth. And then Sic Alps went quiet for a bit ... but the wait has been worth it. Now a trio, the group is set to release the new double-LP Napa Asylum (Drag City) on Jan. 25.
Napa Asylum displays Sic Alps' flair for irresistible hooks and torrid experimentation. As usual, the new tracks were recorded with "a delay pedal, reverb tank, two microphones, $100 preamp, and Tascam 388." There are 22 cuts in just under 48 minutes, with some delicious pop-rock morsels, including "Cement Surfboard," "Ball of Flame," and "Zeppo Epp."
What's new is how often this San Francisco no-fi band slows its tempo and explores the psychedelic side of its sound, like on the serene "Low Kid," reverb-riddled "Ranger," and the closer, "Nathan Livingston Maddox," which is based on a dream Mike Donovan had about the late Gang Gang Dance member, who was killed by lightning. Napa Asylum's other bizarre lyrical ruminations on magic and schizophrenia prove Sic Alps, as ever, aren't afraid to wander into new sonic and poetic terrain. *
With Ganglians, Melted Toys, and Speculator
Jan. 19, 8:30 p.m., $10
Bottom of the Hill
1233 17th St., SF
With the Blow
Jan. 30, 8 p.m., $15
Great American Music Hall
859 O'Farrell, SF
With Thee Oh Sees.
Feb. 9, 8 p.m., $13–$16 (benefit for the Coalition on Homelessness)
Great American Music Hall
859 O'Farrell, SF