When Fast Forward Weekly critic Devin Friesen wrote that Sic Alps’ 2010 double album, Napa Asylum, wasn’t “worth the plastic it was printed on,” he wasn’t being unnecessarily harsh. It was, as Friesen pointed out, an aimless affair — in his words, “completely pointless” — built around meandering fuzz, wandering garage riffage and indecipherable chanting. (To wit, another reviewer called its theme “laziness.”) Despite being championed by the indie elite, the band’s music, if it wasn’t “completely pointless,” often felt uninviting — without being overtly challenging. Friesen had a point.
Of course, over four LPs and countless singles, Sic Alps — a project mostly headed by guitarist Mike Donovan — displayed potential. They got lumped in with the shitgaze cohort, yet Thurston Moore was always a vocal supporter. Stephen Malkmus purportedly knighted them the most important band of the next decade. Cali it-dude Ty Segall joined, then left, the band. Noisy and aimless as Sic Alps were, they always had unrealized potential — something they’re beginning to realize on their September-released self-titled LP.
“For this album, the idea was to be less confusing,” Donovan says. “We wanted to make our songs less challenging for the listener, but more challenging for us.
“The first record we did [Pleasures and Treasures] was straight-up noise. Some of those songs weren’t ready or full enough, so when we recorded them, we’d [alternate them] with noise tracks instead.”
But Sic Alps is a far cry from the band’s static-laden early recordings — and at 10 tracks, it’s deliberately more focused than Napa Asylum. It’s the band’s first foray into a proper studio, a decision Donovan says was simply intended to “try something new. We definitely don’t want to be the band we were in 2006.”
And it shows: “Moviehead” and “God Bless Her, I Miss Her,” while still possessing plenty of slacker charm, might be Sic Alps’ most lucid tracks yet. “Lazee Son,” led by an in-the-reds damaged vocal track, finds Donovan alone with an acoustic guitar — these are haunting new territories for Sic Alps. And several tracks contain the string arrangements of Ryan Francesconi — whose solo work could classify him as the violin world’s answer to Colin Stetson — an artist best known for his work with Joanna Newsom.
“He was never even in the same room as us,” says Donovan. “So we did it all over email. We’d send him videos of our stuff, and he’d send us back MIDI versions [of his arrangements]. He would pull stuff out of some demos we’d recorded and put strings to it — he did a great job. I never thought I’d have the budget to hire someone who could write arrangements for us.”
The sound that has emerged from Sic Alps has been tough to define — it’s still woozy, it’s still experimental, but it’s definitely not shitgaze. Donovan has solidified a sound that can only be classified as West Coast psychedelia — though critics have compared the record’s cool to the Velvet Underground, the treble-soaked twang of Yellow Submarine and the scruffiness of The Kinks. Donovan says he isn’t bothered by such comparisons but, he adds, they shouldn’t be taken at face value.
“Well, we listen to The Kinks all the time, but we were actually listening to a lot of U.S. Girls when we recorded the album,” says Donovan. “But what people hear in our music depends more on the individual, less on what we’re doing. We’re a West Coast band — three-quarters of us live in L.A. — but one person’s idea of West Coast psychedelia can be way different than another’s. I mean, when I think of West Coast psychedelia, I think, like, Quicksilver Messenger Service.”
Which brings us back to Friesen’s criticisms. Sic Alps have changed, arguably for the better — and if their newest album sounds more accessible, and less solipsistic than ever, it’s deliberate. “We’re consciously doing things people tended to appreciate,” laughs Donovan. Well played.