Real Life Rock and Roll Band — Hollerin’ the Spirit (Geomancy, 2019)
Nothing fancy here, and that’s a good thing. Oakland-based Real Life Rock & Roll Band play guitar-guitar-bass-drums rock that feels like sunlight over wild grasslands, filling space with upbeat, fuzzed-out guitars, strong-snap drumming and ghostly vocals. Their album is out on the Geomancy label, which has done strong work documenting some of the Bay Area’s experimental-leaning music (Grex, Surplus 1980, Jordan Glenn).
The music unfolds into extended jams, sometimes with parts made of overlapping polyrhythms, but it can be enjoyed at a simpler level — it’s electric folk descended from psychedelia. Chris Forsythe might be a point of comparison.
“Singing the Freedom of Utopic Space” eventually develops a guitar chime in 5/4 and a keyboard loop in what I think is 15/8. It breaks for a pleasantly quiet, clicking groove in the middle, then ends with anthemic group shouting that reminds me of some of the alt-folk rock from earlier in the 2000s (The Circulatory System? Akron/Family?)
Even though the music is composed, it has a spontaneous feel, like being in the center of an idea that is just starting to unfold. The spinning hypnotic cycles of jangly guitar set you down in a comfortable place and encourage you to enjoy the view. One miscue, for me, is the use of autotune; for a band that describes themselves as “favoring the spirit of the music over the evasive monolith of perfection,” it feels too inorganic.
Take a listen to the ending moments of “Earthbound Phantoms Not Numerous.” The rest of the eight-minute song has played out at this point, shifting into an abstractly flickering cooldown — the band showing off its abstract side — the drops into “There Oughta Be a Law Against Sunny Southern California.” The latter is the album’s de facto single, in my mind — a 1975 Terry Allen song transformed from gritty highway blues to a low-key haze and a thousand-yard stare. Below, I’m including an excerpt of the transition between the songs, because I think it sounds cool, followed by all of “There Oughta Be a Law.” You can hear the whole album on Bandcamp.
Jordan Glenn is a ubiquitous Bay Area drummer, playing in so many jazz/improv contexts including the prog band Jack o’ the Clock and his own pranskerish trio Wiener Kids. With BEAK, Glenn showcases himself as a composer, leaving the playing up to others. It’s a set of coordinated rock jams thick with guitar and percussion — four percussionists! Sometimes they combine for a glorious stomp; sometimes it’s an intricate exercise in counterpoint.
Compositions build off of riffs and rhy, with guitars (Will Northlich-Redmond and Grex‘s Karl Evangelista) drenched in fuzz and surrounded by hand drums. Mark Clifford’s vibraphone adds splashes of extra melody. The percussion barrage, so vital to the album’s overall mood, comes from Geneva Harrison on the drum kit and Robert Woods-LaDue and Robert Lopez on hand percussion. Max Judelson on bass rounds out the band.
Glenn’s trademark sense of humor is found more in the song titles than in the music itself. Sublime moments come in the trilogy of “Coda” pieces, with the easygoing odd-time beat of “Coda 2 – This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things” and the lingering haze of “Coda 3 – The Games Chickens Play.”
Some of the album’s most satisfying moments are the quieter ones. “Coda 2” is worth another mention in that regard; it’s a slow burn, a moderate tempo that builds momentum as the odd rhythm latches into your brain. That said, the full-blast bombastic tracks are fun. “Flower Fashion Fantasies” announces the band: “We’ve got guitars! We’ve got four percussionists!” and builds into a frenzy. Later, the track returns in a higher-energy reprise.
Grex appears at Bottom of the Hill (1233 17th St., San Francisco) on Jan. 23, 2019.
The art-rock band Grex charms you with upbeat indie-pop melody and then blasts you with psych-driven guitar grit, often in the same song. That mix anchors the band’s personality, honed over years by founders Rei Scampavia and Karl Evangelista, and their steady drummer Robert Lopez. Each album or live show is a workout for multiple brain centers: rock, prog, free jazz, even goofy whimsy.
Scampavia’s airy vocals can make for charming melodic leads. “Martha” is one of the highlights, a sad little tribute to the last of the passenger pigeons. “Mal and Luma” has the slightly silly sound of a kids’ TV theme. Both songs then get a dose of more searing guitar — mournful on the former ebullient on the latter (with some Beatlesesque applause randomly added to contribute to the silliness). “Transpiration” uses guitar blasts in a satisfying power-pop mode before slipping into a tougher psych-rock attack.
That rougher side, with Evangelista’s growly vocals, makes for some satisfying excursions too, with crunchy guitar leading the way on “Husk” and the soulful, pumping riff of “Saints.” Guest horns sometimes add choppy free jazz to the mix, but they also arrive in melodic form, strengthening the rolling pop sounds of “Round Trip” and “Quicksilver.”
Even as any given song flips through disparate ideas, it doesn’t lose its core feeling. Grex knows where it wants to go. There needs to be a place for this kind of pop/rock: music that can smartly flip through many influences to build something exciting.