Three years since their last album, San Francisco outfit Sic Alps don’t so much return to the scene as flood it with a 22-track deluge. In many ways the perfect garage band, their style oozes California and the feel of being in the studio with them. Having been leaked on the internet back in December and at a length that even London’s most persistent Album Clubs might struggle to manage in one sitting, is the record something to shout about? Probably not, but Napa Asylum is worth sticking with nonetheless.
The first thing to notice is the production. Reverb and echo give the whole album a kind of vintage hum, a hazy buzz with a distinct whiff of Woodstock. Pleasant opener Jolly clunks into life, to be superseded by the genuinely masterful Eat Happy. A perfect lesson in understated cool, the simple vocals and strumming overpowers the jarring clang of guitar, stabbed away with a punchy Ohrwurm of a refrain.
One pole of Sic Alps’ tone is a laid-back, slightly hippy sound which sets the listener down in the carefree ideal of a generation gone by. Comparisons have been drawn with The Kinks, and it’s not hard to see why, in style if not quite in brilliance. While Sic Alps are hardly challenging for legendary status, a number of tracks stick out as genuine tunes.
Cement Surfboard sees plodding verses lifted out of their comfort zone by a soaring falsetto chorus. Lyrically simple yet solid, occasional flashes of inspiration shine through, including a surprisingly apt metaphor for nostalgia (“going back in time to the old folks home inside”). Short-and-sweet Ball Of Fame is real garlands-in-your-hair stuff, while on Low Kid, the band become a little Beatles-y, both musically and lyrically. The forward-rolling syllabic patterning of the lyrics brings out a listenable sing-song quality (watching the rain/watching the people that come and go/they all look the same/but I know that that couldn’t be true). Elsewhere, Super Max Lament On The Way has a delicate, lullaby quality. This isn’t so much a song as a journey through the subdued corner of the emotional spectrum.
The band does manage some contrasts. Compare the fireside reflectivity of Country Medicine with the bass-drum thrusts of Zeppo Epp, or the driving aggression of The First White Man To Touch The California Soil, and it’s clear that some variety has been achieved. The problem is that with 22 tracks, there is always a danger of repetition.
Meter Man is simply a less imaginative Cement Surfboard, and Ranger doesn’t appear to have any direction. Far too often, one track blurs into the next in a way that’s down to lack of variation, not seamless progression.
In an album of homogenous plodding, what really stick out are the sharp spikes of dystopia that one or two tracks offer. These unexpected discordant messes add a real bite to the laid back haziness, putting the ‘Asylum’ in with the ‘Napa’. Trip Train’s menacing hum is scary, but outdone by 40 seconds of terrifying disorder on Wasted At Church – think more hellfire and vomiting than communion-wine tipsiness. The real artistic highlight, however, is My My Lai. Named after the horrific massacre of Vietnamese women and children by American soldiers in 1968, this track is truly haunting, as stumbling percussion falls over itself as if staggering to its feet in a traumatised haze.
Napa Asylum graces us with moments of understated beauty, and when it’s not terrifying us with bad trips, leaves a feeling of contentment and fuzzy warmth with the world. However, 22 tracks is gratuitous and excessive, and the repetitiveness inherent in some of the tracks shows that quantity, and not always quality, swayed the making of the final cut.