Tuesday, July 10, 2012

None Dare Call It 'Retro': The RA-6600, The Willies and The Sufis Demonstrate Their Duty Now and For the Past

Posted By on Tue, Jul 10, 2012 at 11:34 AM

The Sufis
  • The Sufis
I’ve never quite understood the derisive way the terms “retro” and “revivalist” are bandied about by some elitist music critics. It is true that sometimes artists can look to the past and come away with imitation instead of inspiration, but most often the “R" words are deployed to dismiss entire styles or genres that the individual critic knows or cares little about. This of course leads to a double-standard: Inspired by Big Star = innovative power-pop indie rock! Inspired by Carl Perkins = rockabilly revivalist (and by the way, not worthy of serious attention — sniff … ).

The bottom line of course is what an individual does with his influences. Are they bringing something new to the table? That something new can take many forms — from stylistic updates to multiple genre fusions, or simply a fresh, personal vision laid over an established template. Three new local releases all seek to reclaim the honor of “revivalism” through different paths and all achieve the goal with some distinction.

First up is the debut EP from the duo known as The RA-6600. Nashville punk-alternative-indie rock veteran Mark Medley (CPS, Raging Fire, Mercy Sanction, Tabasko Kat and more) and Daniel Olivas (The Boomgates) deliver a five-song shot of irresistible pop. Drawing inspiration equally from the finely crafted pop confections of the late '60s and early '70s along with the New Wave post-punk sound of early Elvis Costello, Nick Lowe and Squeeze — it invokes the sense of what might have been had if the young and angry Mr. Costello of 1978 could have forged a collaboration with Burt Bacharach rather than the much tamer affair the two old vets eventually produced.

But Olivias and Medley aren’t just aping records from their high school days. They’re putting their own twist on them with a sound informed by an additional 30 years of music history — creating irresistible pop songs that need no reference to any one decade in order to be enjoyed.

It’s almost become a cliche that former punk rockers end up becoming Americana artists. But for many Southern punkers — and particularly ones from the Nashville area — “discovering” their country roots is anything but an affectation. And that’s certainly true for the husband-wife duo The Willies. On their debut album, Nashville first-generation punk scene vet Dave Willie (CPS, Jet Black Factory 9 Parts Devil) and his wife Jen Jones (The Camaros) deliver literate, engaging songs topping a musical stew of influences that include jazz vocals, country, rockabilly and more.

But what The Willies are serving goes far beyond simple musical cross-breeding. What’s really at work here is more on the order of musical gene-splicing — carefully and consciously producing a beast that is greater than the sum of its parts and yet works together as a whole rather than as a mash-up of styles. It’s the same master plan that bands like The Mekons, Lambchop or X have utilized with their disparate influences. (You knew I couldn’t review a country-flavored, punkish husband-wife act without making the John-Exene connection … ) The end result is music with a greater complexity that you notice on first listen, and one that you keep returning to explore the next layer.

Nashville garage-psych rockers The Sufis are a much younger band, but their eponymous debut album sounds like it almost could have fallen through a wormhole and arrived fresh from that glorious period after the release of The Beatles’ Revolver, but before the release of Sgt. Pepper — a period when psychedelia was still a glorious new toy and seemed like a very good idea.

The album divides its time between catchy psych-pop songs like “Where Did She Go” and “Sai Sai Flora” that could charm the knickers right off a groovy bird and experimental music that sounds like they were put together by a home-studio whiz kid who just learned about flanging and tape manipulation from the latest issue of Popular Science. But The Sufi’s attempt at a sonic time machine succeeds not because it tries to self-consciously recapture the sound of 1967 but because they bring fresh ideas and talent to their chosen style along with a “hey-guys-let’s-try-this” attitude that leaps off the grooves and wins you over. And the fact that is was recorded on all-analog equipment by three guys in their early twenties turns that charm factor up to 11.

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