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Sic Alps - Napa Asylum

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Artist: Sic Alps

Album: Napa Asylum

Label: Drag City

Review date: Jan. 25, 2011

It might be more effective to draw a diagram as a review of Sic Alps’ third full-length, and it would be of no small irony that this diagram would be in the shape of a triangle. Not so much because the band’s core duo of Mike Donovan and Matt Hartman has been expanded to include Echoplex abuser Noel Harmonson, late of Comets on Fire, nor that there are three dimensions of personality-as-sonic attribute I’d lay on the Sic Alps sound vector (namely enchantment, openness and slack — especially slack).

It’s the symbolism of the triangle itself, the whole neo-cult mythology that’s been attached to young people who want to give themselves an air of mystery despite anything you’d want to know about them lingering in cyberspace. All of the problems of modern music — an overreliance on technology and repurposed content, a cultivated image as thorough as it is desperate, frivolous espousal with the occult, dangerously over-medicated participants — hide behind this shape. And I’d hate to lump this Bay Area group in with any notions of “witch house” or “grave wave” when its entire repertoire is so deeply indebted to a less distinct jumble of lines and points, namely the crumpled, low-tech cryptonumerology of the early ‘90s. “O-X-E-X-E / N-I-E-L-E / S-I-C-I-D /Beep beep beep beep boop beep beep beep,” mumbles Donovan on “Eat Happy,” and the struggle of having to dig beyond the shopping mall or the cable TV broadcast to find music such as this, and to climatize oneself to what would be found if/when one got there, comes rushing back. Spasm smash, ox ‘n’ ass — these are words, not shapes, and you can instill your own meaning without looking so much like one who follows.

Secret language notwithstanding, the contents of Napa Asylum make for Sic Alps’ clearest argument for existence since their Description of the Harbor EP kicked off an inflationary streak in latter-day record collecting history. Its 22 brief songs roll and crash against each other with a snoozy yet affable wake ‘n’ bake demeanor, and though the bursts of hurricane noise that set so high the bar for entry to their last album, US E.Z. are still prevalent, they’re not the whole story anymore. Enough focus has been paid to the songs in a traditional sense that a new dimension of folkiness has sprung out of their magnetic nest. Something like “Ranger,” with its quiet, reverberating bass thump, piano melody and scaled-back feedback, sounds like something you might have found on a Grifters record way back when. Those elements resurface later on “Meter Man,” affixed to a big riff that sounds off just because it can, then settles back down into a groove that splits off between U.K. folk-pop dandyism and a grittiness so vivid that you may want to check your shoes for sand after listening. Later on, “The First White Man to Touch California Soil” springs to life, a two-chord basher that represents one of several wake-up calls sprinkled strategically throughout Napa Asylum, and contributes greatly to the openness and accessibility of the effort. You may stumble upon an experiment or a minute-long fragment here and there, but the deck is stacked with memorable songcraft and an attitude that understands silliness without succumbing to sketch-comic dead ends.

I’m not sure enough to call it focus; maybe the music of Sic Alps has simply congealed into something that’s honestly likeable instead of outwardly indifferent, or even hostile. Its members don’t sweat the nostalgia that comes with writing songs in a lo-fi template, nor do they bear exacting comparison to any number of the greats in that field. Rather, the band has evened out its buzz, knowing the pleasures of the familiar but wringing a new passion, or maybe just an outpouring of believability, that keeps its stance a bit more honest than on past efforts. All of a sudden, these guys don’t sound so random anymore, even though much of Napa Asylum is as ramshackle as most listeners will be able to tolerate. Like many of the upper tier of labelmates the group now shares a roster with (Royal Trux, Neil Hagerty solo, Pavement, Plush), Sic Alps has learned how to digest influence and process it into personal statements that become its own, without giving up the attitude that makes its music work so well. I know a certain group of kids who can learn from such a thing, if only their attention spans could endure this effort.

By Doug Mosurock

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