Southern California’s Yoodoo Park, alias GRMLN, may have been born in Japan but the sound on his debut album Empire is entirely that of his adopted home: upbeat, no-frills garage-rock with a dreamy, summery edge that seems to speak of baking hot, graffiti-strewn concrete skateparks and open-top road trips along palm tree-lined boulevards. Barely out of his teens, the Kyoto-via-Orange County surfer writes music about the youthfulness and lazy summers that he knows best, with titles like Coastal Love and Summer Days, Teenage Rhythm and 1993 (named after the scarily recent year of his birth) appearing among the nine songs that make up the record.
At only 23 minutes long, Empire is short but sweet, over almost before you realise. In common with contemporary slacker-punks Howler, Parquet Courts and Fidlar, GRMLN races through his material at speed and excises anything that doesn’t strictly need to be there: there are no long buildups, contrived distortion sessions or wig-out finales, the songs bursting in and then fading out almost as suddenly. There’s something appealing about the simplicity and leanness of GRMLN’s songwriting – two or three-note hooks, chugging, repetitive chords, big choruses, perhaps a short, bare-bones guitar solo as a bit of a garnish – but at the same time the songs do feel a little flat, the glossy production values depriving Empire of the scuzzy, confrontational brattiness that elevates the likes of Howler, Fidlar and Parquet Courts. The polite, polished sound quality is too much at odds with the lo-fi approach of the songs themselves, stripping the music of its piquancy.
That’s not to say that Empire is pedestrian or middle-of-the-road in any way. The scratchy guitar riffs and terrace-chant of a chorus (the boy really knows his way around a chorus) on opening track Teenage Rhythm brim with energy, before breaking down as Park yelps “So get out of my head” over and over. Coastal Love has a brilliant happy-go-lucky surf-pop hook and Do You Know How It Feels?’ chiming two-note melody is prettily mournful, while Summer Days’ pleasingly crunchy, plodding guitar line contrasts nicely with Park’s hazy vocals. In fact, the album is almost too competent: there are none of the little quirks of recording or unexpected tangents that the best punk-spirited albums have, the moments that prove to the listener that actual humans are behind the music rather than a computer program with a checklist of Things To Include In A Garage-Rock Record. The choruses are uniformly catchy and anthemic, the melodies never overly dissonant or distorted. This might sound like a good thing, but too much professionalism begins to grate after a while. You might find yourself yearning for a squeal of feedback or an out-of-tune vocal.
It also means there’s little to differentiate the songs from each other. There’s not a lot of variation on Empire, save for the last two tracks – Cheer Up switching out the beachy pop-punk of the previous seven songs for a smoothly nostalgic number that borrows heavily from ’50s crooners, while Dear Fear closes the record with a fairly generic, downbeat acoustic strum-a-thon (another thing crossed off that computer program’s checklist).
Despite its shortcomings, Empire is actually a pretty successful album: clearly written with summer in mind, it’s the perfect soundtrack for lazing about in hot weather. It’s a catchy, undemanding collection of tunes for blasting from your car stereo, or sticking on in the background. There’s no wild pretension and little real originality here, and it’s not going to change your life or make any critics’ Greatest Album lists, but it’s a lot of fun, and sometimes that’s all you want.