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Sic Alps - A Long Way Around to a Shortcut

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Artist: Sic Alps

Album: A Long Way Around to a Shortcut

Label: Animal Disguise

Review date: May. 6, 2008

Among the sea of lossy mp3s, plummeting CD sales, and Garageband novices, it's refreshing to know that at least the psychedelic underground still largely clings to analog aesthetics. Improv noiseniks, pop experimentalists and DIY enthusiasts alike largely revel in technologies deemed all but obsolete by the mainstream, exploring the potentials of 4-track fidelity and eschewing the sample rates of digital systems. For many, it's just a preference for analog quality, but it also speaks to an innate protest against popular culture at large, as low-income art kids and outsider musicians both record and release their craft through a variety of analog mediums that the average youngster wouldn't even know how to operate.

While digital platforms triumph in the realm of convenience and accessibility, there's still a healthy market for the vinyl-minded. At least releasing material through limited pressings of 7"s, 12"s and cassettes with hand-rendered artwork is one way to make your record worth buying instead of downloading – it's much harder to rip a slab of wax than it is to import a CD, and a silk-screened 12" looks much prettier on the shelf than an mp3.

San Francisco garage-psych combo Sic Alps are among several artists in the Bay Area scene that champion such practices. Over the past two years, guitarist Mike Donovan and drummer Matthew Hartman have used an old 8-track to document their reverb-drenched hallucinations, producing a relatively steady stream of releases in limited-edition 7", 12" and cassette format that have all long been snatched up by eager fans and vinyl-hungry collectors. Scour the internet if you like, but I was hard-pressed to find a single one of the five releases for sale on the all-encompassing Web. Basic economics will tell you that when demand exceeds the supply, you'd better make more of those fuckers.

Luckily, Detroit-based imprint Animal Disguise came to the rescue with a new CD compiling each of the five vinyl and cassette EPs, even throwing in a previously unreleased track and the duo's cut from the Hip Hop Shop Sweepers Vol. 1 compilation on 777was666 records. But it's here that the problem arises. The medium that was originally shunned by the band in favor of vinyl crackle and tape warmth has become a necessary substitution to satisfy the ears of those who missed out on the first round of pressings. While the convenience of such a compilation justifies its existence in light of the unavailability of the physical releases themselves, those that experience the group's noise-laden lo-fidelity via the CD are missing that extra level of grittiness that was intended for the turntable.

But enough with meticulous audiophilic details, because A Long Way Around to a Shortcut exhibits an hour's worth of quality noise-psych concoctions, doing to Nuggets-era psychedelia what the recent horde of Columbus, Ohio, trash rockers are doing to mid-'90s indie-pop – amping up the trim levels and testing the threshold of song structure. The tracks progress backwards through release dates, beginning with the duo's most recent 12", Description of the Harbor, put out on Awesome Vistas last November, and ending with The Soft Tour in Rough Form 12" that was released through Mt.St.Mtn records in April 2006.

They kick things off with a noisy cover of The Strapping Fieldhands' "Description of the Harbor," moving through the LP’s nine other tracks of tattered jingles, tambourine shakes and upbeat sing-alongs. The more straight-ahead psych-pop approach was a bit off-putting for me at first, since the last exposure I had to the band was via the slow-motion ruckus of their debut full-length, Pleasures and Treasures, released in 2006 and recorded with the original lineup of Donovan, Adam Stonehouse (The Hospitals), and Bianca Sparta (Erase Errata). The levels pick up with track 11, which signals the three-song stint taken from the “Strawberry Guillotine” 7" on Woodsist, harking back more to the overblown blues showcased on the debut. Donovan and Hartman have a knack for catchy garage hooks, no doubt, but I prefer the songs that provide a sense of urgency despite the nonchalant stomp of the rhythms. They succeed in such a manner through the remainder of the record, delving into paranoid noise collage and fuzzy nostalgia – flirting with White Light/White Heat but going home with Twin Infinitives instead.

For my money at least, I'd much rather have scored one of the original 12"s in order to experience the songs as Sic Alps had intended them to be played. But hearing them at all is an acceptable substitute. At least I won't have to get off the couch to flip “Strawberry Guillotine” over to the B-side…

By Cole Goins

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