When Sic Alps emerged in the early-2000s, the San Francisco garage-rock band's music was caked in muck. The early cassettes and 7-inches carried pop songs that, by burying themselves in gnarly noise and filthy reverb, denied their own existence as pop songs.
Tunes like 'And What Came Next,' from 'A Long Way Around To A Shortcut,' weren't really tunes at all, but field recordings abuzz with clawing paranoia and harsh vibes. The 28-second-long 'Be A Song,' from 'Description Of The Harbor,' shoots both of its own feet before it even has a chance of becoming a song, even though it desperately wants nothing more than to be one.
The new Sic Alps album shows how far the band has evolved, qualitatively and quantitatively, since those earlier, dirtier days. The album isn't titled 'Sic Alps' just because founding member Mike Donovan couldn't come up with a better title; it just seemed like an opportune time to begin again.
“When we did the first record,” Donovan recalls, “I didn't really know how to write or record a song. We just turned the song down, and turned the noise up, and most of those early records sound like that. But this new one is a whole new start for the band, so we had to clean the slate.”
The personnel is new. In the beginning, Sic Alps was singer/guitarist Donovan and drummer Matt Hartman. The band has changed about eight times since then; past members include Ty Segall, Adam Stonehouse (Coachwhips, Hospitals) and Bianca Sparta (Erase Errata). On the new album -- and for the band's upcoming tour -- Sic Alps is a four-piece with Donovan, bassist Tim Hellman (Wet Illustrated), guitarist Barrett Avner (Sun Araw) and drummer Douglas Armour.
Fresh starts aren't always a breeze, especially for a musician who's only made music on a Tascam 8-track recorder in bedrooms and basements without ever having to relinquish a drop of creative control to an engineer or a producer. But that's what he had to do on 'Sic Alps,' which was recorded by Eric Bauer at Bauer Mansion, a small studio in San Francisco. Bauer and Donovan have been friends for several years, yet Donovan was still apprehensive about putting aside his trusty Tascam.
“It took time for him to adjust, but after we started laying down tracks, he started to get it," says Bauer. "I wanted to make the songs so you could actually hear them. Mike's a brilliant writer; his lyrics are amazing, and you could never hear that in his old records. He didn't see my vision at first, I didn't see his, so it took a few months for us to finally come together. But everything finally clicked, and it turned out great.”
Donovan reflected on his initial skepticism. “I had to take a leap of faith,” he says. “I had to let other people put their hands on it, let control go, and then eventually just let it be.”
“Glyphs,” the first single from “Sic Alps,” begins with glassy, dramatic strings and acoustic guitar fingerpicking before plunging into that gritty, bashing rock'n'roll swagger Sic Alps does so well. The spit and snark are still present, but the new songs sound thicker, the riffs more muscular, the hooks sharper, and the songwriting much more concise, eloquent and confident. Unlike with the band's early recordings, this time the gold is in plain sight. We no longer have to go digging for it beneath the mud.
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