Get SF Weekly Newsletters
Pin It

Industrial Sun 

Suncatcher and the mediocre beauty of Los Angeles

Wednesday, Aug 12 1998
The essence of Los Angeles has been embodied in the music of any number of divergent artists: the tanned anomie of the Beach Boys, the slick paranoia of the Doors, the decadent whirls of Jane's Addiction. Suncatcher captures something new: the dichotomy of the city's aesthetic, the beauty inside the beast.

From the freeways, Los Angeles is a mobile tableau of mediocrity. Speeding by in a sparkling blur, it's a testament to the perversity of human creation. With a curvaceous range on one side and the big blue ocean on the other, we've covered everything in between with strips of metal and slabs of cement. Even when we dream of freedom -- of a free way -- we create hidebound funnels of death. Yet the concrete landscape has its own peculiar rhythm, a seductive, intoxicating order not inconsistent with purple mountains' majesty and amber waves of grain. The freeways, the glass towers, and the refineries of L.A.'s landscape are beautiful in a certain way, as much for their contradictions as for their aesthetic intrigue. There's a beauty in the industrial arcs that's not supposed to be there. The skyscraper floats with the water, the refineries dream with the night, the freeway speaks to the sky, and together they write something like song.

Despite the imperfections of our collective actions, the brilliance of the individual, of the artist, of nature, is inherent in human creation. Almost mathematically, our fundamental poetry as creatures shines through even the most banal works of commerce and art. Doug Hammond, the creature behind Suncatcher, embodies all of the above contradictions. (And some that seem El Lay specific -- for years he financed his esoteric artistic endeavors with cash his lawyer would secure for him for demo recordings, few of which ever bore fruit.) His recent, second release with his band -- Brian Knight on bass; Roy Murray on drums -- is a rock record both sublime and unremarkable, the aural equivalent of radiant freeways and dazzling refineries.

Hammond is from Long Beach, a strip of coastal Los Angeles that hosts a U.S. naval station and a grand prix racetrack. It's ugly, yet fascinating -- the skyscraper hotels and the towering ship hulls are painterly even as they attest to the toll we humans take on our surroundings. The Girl That God Forgot, on the kid-size major label Restless Records, has Long Beach in its veins. The band's derivative rock tropes seem fatally average on their face, but it turns out to be the first impression that's faulty. Underneath, Hammond's compositions are profound, contemplative, moving, all the more so for their seeming lack of artistic consequence.

Hammond employs a hodgepodge of Ameri-rock influences, ranging from sweet 'n' light pop to anarchic post-punk, but his main metier is lively, psychedelic guitars circa the late '60s and early '70s. The 11 songs on The Girl are infectious in a classic, driving-music kind of way; they bounce along in a happy-go-lucky mood seeming simultaneously important and disposable. "The Puritan Song" is typical, a loping groove climaxing in a chorus of loose strumming and big, banging drums that brings to mind the Byrds, Fleetwood Mac, and R.E.M. Hammond is a master of songcraft and a devotee of the rock canon; his slightly distressed riffs are instantly accessible and his melodies are hard to clear from your head. His holy grail is Revolver-era Beatles -- on Suncatcher's first album, Owlflower, he even copped the "Let me take you down" lyric from "Strawberry Fields Forever," arousing Yoko Ono's ire -- and Girl's tunes flow with a lush ease that's worthy of the Fab Four's maharishi phase. "Have a Nice Day" and "Trippin," especially, evoke the sun-drenched nihilism of the days in the wake of Brian Epstein's overdose and the Beatles' spiritual disillusionment, a nihilism with an intriguing corollary in New Age-, end-times-obsessed L.A.

Hammond's tastes in inspiration are so public domain that his songs sound run-of-the-mill even when they're not. It's hard to work so formally within the musical confines of the late Beatles/"Dazed and Confused" era without sacrificing originality. Indeed, what would be the point? But Hammond is original -- repeated listings reveal a profundity obscured by Girl's initial mediocrity.

Hammond's freshness lies in the feelings his songs evoke, an anxiously mellow brew of humor and hopelessness seeking relief in love and sex, or some combination thereof. If The Girl That God Forgot is about anything, it's quite simply about the feelings that Hammond's time and place inspire in him. His lyrics are part nonsense, part revelation -- simple, often simplistic observations that hit the nails of existence right on the head.

Quoting the lyrics is pointless; Hammond's abstractions come off stupid on the page: "Baby get your facts straight/ Over and over/ In the Range Rover/ Making doughnuts in the clover/ Open wide/ Real things bleed/ Get it on/ Hey Donna Reed" is an illustrative example. United with its music, though, "Viva" gets inside your head as a reflection on life in all its organic directionlessness. It's not the specifics of Hammond's music or lyrics as much as the ineffable emotion behind them that makes Suncatcher so hard to shake. Both Girl's sound and words are infused with honest-to-God human experience, the magic ingredient that transforms Hammond's goofy, derivative tendencies into potent art.

It's the same stuff that metamorphoses L.A.'s concrete byways into intricate carvings and its industrial parks into sculpture gardens. As functional and uninspired as Los Angeles may seem on its surface, beauty is always accessible, under the skin. Sometimes it takes a certain light to see art in the relentless stomp of progress, but it's there. Doug Hammond can always find it. Literally, in Long Beach, and figuratively, in his music, the beauty in the beast is home.

About The Author

Natasha Stovall


Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment

Popular Stories

  1. Most Popular Stories
  2. Stories You Missed


  • clipping at Brava Theater Sept. 11
    Sub Pop recording artists 'clipping.' brought their brand of noise-driven experimental hip hop to the closing night of 2016's San Francisco Electronic Music Fest this past Sunday. The packed Brava Theater hosted an initially seated crowd that ended the night jumping and dancing against the front of the stage. The trio performed a set focused on their recently released Sci-Fi Horror concept album, 'Splendor & Misery', then delved into their dancier and more aggressive back catalogue, and recent single 'Wriggle'. Opening performances included local experimental electronic duo 'Tujurikkuja' and computer music artist 'Madalyn Merkey.'"