Lately lo-fi has become the equivalent of distressed jeans. Where once it was an artifact of things like poverty, unfamiliarity with recording equipment and the mental instability that comes with not getting out much, now it’s just another fashion statement. It’s a signifier, an extra layer and, all too often, a way to hide substandard songs. There are probably textile workers in Guatemala who will run your CD-R through an acid bath for a couple of dollars, and it’ll sound just like Wavves. So, when I say that Crocodiles, out of San Diego, are another one of those reverb’d, lo-fi garage psych bands carrying heavy baggage from Jesus & Mary Chain, there’s a suppressed sigh in there somewhere. There’s an emphasis on the word “another.”
And yet, Crocodiles’ first full-length, Summer of Hate is quite a bit better than fellow San Diegan Wavves, at least a couple of notches ahead of Crystal Stilts and, oh, far better than Vivian Girls (though maybe not quite as enjoyable as Pains of Being Pure at Heart). Its evocation of the Jesus & Mary Chain, “I Wanna Kill,” hits all the right notes: the subtle roar of feedback under sweetness; the claustrophobic echo of reverb in tight quarters; the dissonance between hook and lyrical murderousness. The main drawback, if there is one, is that it’s too perfect. It sounds an awful lot like “Happy When It Rains.” It’s a kick, but a guilty one.
Fortunately, Crocodiles’ Charles Rowell and Brandon Welchez (both ex- of The Plot to Blow Up the Eiffel Tower) don’t spend the whole album pining after the Reid Brothers. “Soft Skull (In My Room)” and “Refuse Angels” have the stripped down, punk-electro swagger of early single “Neon Jesus,” the cut that landed Crocodiles on No Age’s “Top Ten Shredders of 2008.” Tremolo’d, piano-chorded “Here Comes the Sky” is a trippy, late-Beatles-esque daydream, keyboards wavering in its underwater production like seaweed in a current. “Flash of Light” is a hippie sing-along on bad acid, a sense of menace lurking in its tambourine jangle, and the title cut has the oversaturated, drum-thumping hyper-reality of Liars channeling Primal Scream. All of the songs develop behind a thick, blurry window of lo-fi, so you can’t always see what’s going on at the back. But, best I can tell, there seem to be actual songs down there.
Summer of Hate is fairly diverse, with bits of punk, pop, shoegaze and space-rock woven into nine distinct tracks. What unites all these elements is a fascination with tone, rather than song structure or lyrical content. The album opens with 48 seconds of reverb’d organ notes (“Screaming Chrome”), a slow, serene exploration of pure sound. Rowell and Welchez return, again and again, to contemplation of slow, evolving tones, washes and atmospheres rather than melodies. Closer “Young Drugs” stretches maybe a minute’s worth of melody over seven minutes of sonic textures – doubled pianos, dense synthesizer drones, clipped, echoing drum beats – but you don’t really mind. You get the sense that the cut’s architecture, its space and density, abrasion and dream-like harmonies, has been built with a plan in mind, not just because fuzz is cool this year.