Saturday, January 13, 2018

CD Odyssey Disc 1091: The Growlers

It felt like I hadn’t had a musical discovery, but this week I had a breakthrough with late eighties/early nineties rapper Big Daddy Kane. I bought two of his albums on the weekend and I’m looking forward to exploring his music even further.

This next album is a far cry from rap, but it is another “new to me” album – a band I discovered last year but I’m pretty excited about.

Disc 1091 is…Chinese Fountain
Artist: The Growlers

Year of Release: 2014

What’s up with the Cover? Chinatown neon in all its splendor! I don’t read Chinese but my guess would be that the characters in the lower right spell out “Chinese Fountain.”

How I Came To Know It: Last year when Sheila and I were planning our trip to San Francisco, I checked to see if there were any bands in town we might want to see while we were there. Nobody I knew was playing, so I started investigating the bands that were playing. The Growlers stuck out immediately and I went to buy tickets but…all three of their shows were sold out. I kept searching and ended up with the Francis Luke Accord (reviewed back at Disc 1051).

While I never got to see the Growlers live, I did get hooked on their sound, and bought their new release “City Club” before we left for our trip anyway. I couldn’t find “Chinese Fountain” until I went to Amoeba Records during our trip to San Francisco, and there it was! There is some beautiful symmetry to that.

How It Stacks Up:  I have two Growlers albums and if you’re paying attention you know which two. Of those “Chinese Fountain” is the best.

Ratings: 4 stars

Listening to “Chinese Fountain” it was easy to see why the Growlers have built an audience so loyal they sold out three straight nights in San Francisco.

It is refreshing when a band can draw on multiple musical influences and blend them into something new and powerful. The Growlers are a blend of echoing surfer guitar, eighties Goth music with a pinch of sixties doo wop and seventies disco thrown in for added flavour. Think Dick Dale crossed with the Cure and you’ll be close. The band’s followers call this “Beach Goth” and that’s as good a description as any.

Whatever you call it, “Chinese Fountain” is my favourite of their albums. On it, the Growlers manage to mix the ‘warm bath’ quality of surfer music with lilting melodies that add a nice swell and dip to the ride. You can take this album lying down, floating in the ambience, or you can catch the wave and aggressively ride the tune into shore. Either way, you’ll have a good time.

Singer Brooks Nielsen’s vocals have a bit of a 60s crooner quality, with a head voice that has a lot of natural resonance and verve. It feels skeevy and romantic in equal measure. The crooner elements are so pronounced that on “Rare Hearts” I had to check the liner notes to be sure it wasn’t a cover (n.b. – it wasn’t: all the tracks on “Chinese Fountain” are Growlers originals).

When the band gets their surf guitar going it is equally compelling. On “Going Gets Tough” the tone of Matt Taylor’s guitar is rich and relaxed. His playing is sublime; a combination of laid back seemingly-effortless groove with a restless energy lurking in the background. The tunes are well structured and give equal billing to everyone in the band, letting you focus in on bass, vocals, drums or guitar with equal ease, although you’ll want to give Taylor’s careless brilliance special attention.

Into this mix of updated surfer rock, “Chinese Fountain” throws in a dark romanticism that reminds you of the Cure. There is an ambient, echoing quality to the sound, with lyrics that are dark and heart-worn.

Then, when you think you’ve got their sound categorized in your mind, along comes the title track, which feels like Blondie in their disco phase, blending dance club beats and New Wave jump. This song is catchy as hell and ought to have been a hit in any sane world. Sadly, when it comes to hit making the world is far from sane. The song is a dystopian view of the music industry, a song that borrows what has come before, while acknowledging there is an inherent emptiness in that process:  

“We are the miners of another generation
Hills scraped dry with no choice but be creative
Everybody’s sick and tired of waiting
Couldn’t get any harder to be patient
Is techno so shitty even disco seems punk
Like the water so filthy it’s no wonder why we’re drunk.”

Rarely is hipsterism so self-aware of its own faults, and the clever recognition that they have made a disco beat dangerous, and wondering – at their own expense – if it was all worth it. When you make a song this good, all is forgiven. And to answer your question, Growlers, yes – techno is that shitty.

What isn’t shitty is “Chinese Fountain” which is an atmospheric groove-fest that shows that there is still gold in the hills around San Francisco, if you’re willing to apply new treatments to find it.

Best tracks: Big Toe, Black Memories, Chinese Fountain, Going Gets Tough, Love Test, Not the Man 

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