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Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Sic Alps - Napa Asylum: B+

The concept of a lo-fi double album fascinates me. The idea of making a sprawling LP of scrappy garage rock tunes that only barely clock in at two minutes seems to me like the biggest musical oxymoron since The Ramones started singing about Nazis over major chords and “hey ho”’s. Napa Asylum, the third album from San Francisco group Sic Alps, has often been analogized as the garage rock Exile on Main St., and those comparisons are warranted. Napa Asylum is a surprisingly consistent collection of ramshackle love songs, and the first lo-fi album that can be safely called an “experience record.”

One might also be reminded of London Calling when I describe Napa Asylum as a sprawling record, but Sic Alps’s work on their album is far from it, in form. Where The Clash used their record space to experiment with different genres, Sic Alps strictly play simple rock songs that are most similar in style and fidelity to The Velvet Underground. Never on Napa Asylum does the group stray from that line. In fact, due to the brevity of most of the songs on the album, Sic Alps usually keep you engaged by implementing one indelible hook per track. Sometimes, it’s the annoying repetition of “eat” in “Eat Happy” or the playful guitar pull-offs in “Zeppo Epp.” It’s a risky strategy, as it would be nearly impossible to defend against arguments that claim the album’s songs are one-dimensional, but, more often than not, Napa Asylum is entertaining as it progresses in sound from acoustic to distorted to ambient to acoustic, again.

Less than a handful of Napa Asylum’s songs run over three minutes long, the first of which arrives ten tracks into the album. One would assume these few songs would be the album’s highlights, as the group would have more time to develop more than just a hook, but they are no more affecting than the rest of Napa Asylum. “The First White Man To Touch California Soil” is probably the most realized track of the bunch, even featuring a guitar solo within its ragged bluster, but “Ball of Fame,” a cute ditty in which singer, Mike Donovan, warns a girl she “better play the game,” is just as memorable, and, at just over a minute, is little more than a third of “First Man”’s track length.

Ultimately, I may enjoy the concept of Napa Asylum better than the actual music. All the album’s tunes are great, but its source material can seem overwrought at times, and the short track lengths occasionally turn promising gems into transitional missed opportunities. Still, it’s hard to complain about an album as reliable as Napa Asylum. It’s far from revolutionary, but it’s one of the most replayable lo-fi albums I’ve ever heard. I may have my qualms, but I would not mind if Sic Alps kept releasing workhorses like Napa Asylum that can keep you satisfied at a low production cost.


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