Wish I could say I knew more about Night Hikes. Wish I could say I hadn’t just stumbled in to a comic book shop on the south side of Berkeley and seen some skinny kid standing in front of a wall of graphic novels, playing a sad, quirky song to a bunch of half-drunk forty-somethings. I can’t thought, as that’s the way it happened. The song, Dream Canyon is of the kind to lock itself in to some off-to-the-side part of your brain, to appear once in a while when everything’s quiet and the lights are down, and maybe someone left a door open in the back of the house and there’s a nice cool breeze cutting through the heat.
Dream Canyons is just that sort of song. It’s simple and pretty and clearly recorded by one person in a badly lit bedroom, fiddling with knobs and tracks and maybe writing a couple errant notes down on a piece of paper and humming to themselves. And somewhere in the process, the whole thing snaps together and you get this strange combination of ethereal independence and truly room-filling singer-songwriter magic. Even for me, who saw a skinny kid and a guitar in a comic book store, I can fool myself in to believing that this is the work of more than just one person.
To say the least, there’s something about Dream Canyons and Night Hikes that just stuck with me. I don’t know if it’s the gentle hint of melancholy or the wavering timber of the vocals or what, but this is a song that’s buried deep.
:Night Hikes – Dream Canyon:
Donovan Quinn, one half of the sorely missed Bay Area group Skygreen Leopards, has been steadily forming a very strong, and very different solo career over the last few years. I find myself, time and time again, searching for artists who do more, who lay down more layers, more sounds, more progress in to some new thing, but Donovan Quinn, Donovan Quinn just pares it on back to zero. Quinn uses a simple palate – a guitar, his voice, perhaps the gentle hint of a reverb pedal – with lyrics that range from the silly to the sweet to the sad all paired with a sort of a hang-dog smile that I imagine would do well on the peeling wood of a southern porch. As with any good artist though, Quinn’s genius exists in his ability to make it all just look so easy. Be it the buck-toothed grin of the almost country feeling tunes that populate Honky-Tonk Medusa or recent collaborative work with Michael Tapiscott, there is no question that Quinn, regardless of whom he might be playing with, crafts gorgeous music.
:Donovan Quinn And Michael James Tapscott – OTW Marlene:
It seems fitting that Moon Duo’s newest album is titled Circles, as it seems to not only describe the band’s circularly rhythmic sound, but to bring them back around to the pulsing krautrock that populated their first Escape EP. Sanae Yamada and Erik “Ripley” Johnson, guitar-wielding members of other San Franciscan staple Wooden Shjips, started up as Moon Duo two years with the aforementioned Escape EP, and then followed that up quickly with their debut LP Mazes. It isn’t to say that Mazes wasn’t a good album, but it seemed that Yamada and Johnson strayed away from the Euro-tinged drone, crafting what was much more a psych-album, often times lingering too long in the world of modern alternative rock ‘n’ roll.
Raise your hands high now, krautrock fans, for Circles is not only a return to what came before, but an immensely forward-moving and enjoyable album. Flip the switch on Circles and you’ll know instantaneously that this is a Moon Duo release – droning, fuzzed out psychedelia that throbs with a unceasing bass-line and the monotone growl of Johnson – but even a cursory listen will expose a different, more organic facet. The hint of organ is still there, the sitar-like guitar still floating untethered, but Circles seems mixed with a greater yen for an organic, almost nature-based sound. Ripley’s voice and the omnipresent bass roar live down and dirty in the mix, more layered addition than their usual driving force. Instead the ethereal guitar whine weaves together with a distorted, grit-filled crunch, filling in the cold gaps that were so present on Escape, creating a new sonic landscape for the band to exist in the process.
:Moon Duo – Sleepwalker:
It might seem strange to be celebrating Sic Alps, a band that’s been weirding out the San Francisco scene for five albums over a tumultuous near-decade. Yet times have changed for Mike Donovan and his merry band of experimentalists. After years and years of standing behind the tattered flag of bedroom recording, Sic Alps have stepped in to the spit-shined corridors of a proper studio. Glyphs, the first single off their new Drag City release, boasts not only a softer, more melancholy twinge of weirdness, but the presence of lightly strummed orchestral elements and an almost traditional verse-chorus-verse composition. Mike Donovan is a talented musician and the change feels less like a drastic change and more like the beginnings of subtle progress. Give the self-titled album a solid listen to and the strains of strange and kooky takes on 60s songwriting pop up time and time again, but they’re a little bit cleaner, a little more refined, a little more buried in the cleanly lit reality of the new Sic Alps.
:Sic Alps – Glyphs:
Dylan Shearer makes psych-pop, that rare combination of drugged-out bliss and crystal clear melody that evokes The Beach Boys on acid, or The Free Design on ketamine. Not to say that Shearer invokes the more sinister edges of the drug-addled, oh no, this is psychedelia that wraps you up in a Fall sweater of guitar and woodwinds. Shearer’s psych isn’t tinged with the harder lines of bass that dominate so many eight-minute psych freak-outs (the speedy edge of a cheap, bad trip), instead it glows with a sort of warm, comforting light. At the heart of it all is Shearer’s voice – resonate and low, calm and friendly – a soothing, baritone guide through the wide-eyed wonder of the kindest psychedelia. Porchpuddles, Shearer’s second album, though run through with a line of 60s smiles, doesn’t feel one note instead he manages to capture both the toothy-grin of drugged-out wonder and the weighty melancholy that lingers at the end. This is psych and pop mixed in the most classic of ways, the tenuous edges of free-form psych brought together under the deceptively superficial happiness of best sort of pop.
Porchpuddles is out now on San Francisco’s very own Empty Cellar Records.
:Dylan Shearer – Porchpuddle Pond: