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Sic Alps makes cracked genius look easy 

Wednesday, Sep 10 2008

Over the last year, local duo Sic Alps has become massively popular in a small scene of record fiends and lo-fi garage-band freaks. Through record sales and touring, guitarist Mike Donovan and drummer/bassist Matthew Hartman have achieved the ideal of underground success: They don't have real day jobs anymore. And though they don't see a cent of the money from eBay sales, the prolific act's limited releases fetch respectable sums online. An early cassette was recently selling for $33, while its first LP recently hit $75. These rising prices persist even though the LP was reissued on CD last year, and the Alps' rarest single and cassette tunes were collected on the stellar disc A Long Way Around to a Shortcut this past May.

Sic Alps' greatest achievement, however, has been taking what pop culture critic Paul Lukas calls "the well-crafted illusion of spontaneity" to its logical conclusion. The duo pulls the cool hat trick of seeming to stumble about, hitting upon bits of musical splendor by mistake, with uncanny perfection. The two employ stuttering rhythms and complex song structures that sound haphazard and half-baked upon first listen. When you play the Alps' cover of Throbbing Gristle's finest pop moment, "United" (released as a one-sided tour single last month), it's as if Hartman and Donovan are remembering each word just before they utter it. The song is such a perfect approximation of being stoned that it's doubtful an actual stoner would've had the patience and concentration to create it.

Sic Alps formed about five years ago, when Donovan and Hartman — who played with Cat Power, Coachwhips, Total Shutdown, and a couple of half-forgotten indie-pop acts — started getting to work on cracked, crusty, wonderful songs. Their glorious racket evolved into the band's current aesthetic, which sits squarely between echoey garage-pop and good-vibes psych jams. U.S. EZ, Sic Alps' fourth and most recent record (and first for the resurgent Siltbreeze label), clocks in at a positively Beatles-esque 29 minutes. But it's epic how these two dudes mash together everything that's attractive about rock 'n' roll into such little space. You've got the raw crunch of your favorite garage-punk single, delicious bits of feedback squall, perfect melodies that last one chorus but stick in your head for hours, and the vacuum effect of heavy psychedelia. There's always a melodic center, even with the Alps' noisiest and most experimental tunes. On U.S. EZ, the pair frequently surfaces from bursts of guitar-crazed fuzz to bust out straight-ahead pop, as on the delightful, '60s-sounding "Gelly Roll Gum Drop" (a reworking of an earlier song), "Bathman," and "Sing Song Waitress."

Donovan and Hartman are clearly music fans as well as performers. They've released records on a variety of revered little labels. They cover the Strapping Fieldhands, a super music-geek band from the early '90s. Donovan used to run the Folding Cassettes label, releasing material by folk-psych rocker Ben Chasny of Six Organs of Admittance, demented noiseniks the Yellow Swans, and his own solo work. In the Alps' awesome homemade videos, the group seems more comfortable showing its influences than the faces of its members. In a clip for the majestic rocker "Bells (w/ Tremolo and Distortion)," we're treated to animated images of Keith Moon and visionary filmmaker and collector Harry Smith along with spinning 7"s of obscure origin. The video was done with the kind of punk bravado that made early Pavement records such a joy to look at. It all seems thrown together until you pause it and realize how much work the band spent animating the song, frame by frame. The video could be seen as the epitome of the Sic Alps mantra: It takes a lot of work to come across this trashy, sloppy, and raggedly brilliant.

About The Author

Mike McGonigal


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