Recently, on a Tiny Mix Tapes forum thread whose topic I’m probably in no position to disclose, a creeping suspicion of mine was confirmed: We TMTers, on the whole, freaking love Sun City Girls. The spray’s radius encompasses various side projects and just about anything that Alan Bishop’s Sublime Frequencies label touches. Something about the way those guys approached music vibrates sympathetically with a core philosophy, if that’s even claimable, of this particular webzine. Namely, I think we agree that (a) music does serious cultural work that always needs thorough exploration/documentation, and that (b) the breadth and seriousness of this project provides an ample venue to fuck around. (Witness, on our end, Ed Comentale’s brilliant Born This Way review, which inspired such a hateful flurry of #wtf tweets as might’ve made former drummer Charles Gocher proud.)
SCG’s final album, last year’s Funeral Mariachi, kicked off by flipping the bird to critics of Sublime Frequencies’ utterly unique field-recording collages (“Why aren’t the original artists properly credited?” “Why aren’t the recordings longer?” “Who’s mashing these things up, anyway?”); if Alan Bishop et al. continued to accelerate the Radio series’ ethnographic knob-twiddling, the result might have ended up as cogent as “Ben’s Radio.” Bishop, a.k.a. Alvarius B, is still laughing on Baroque Primitiva’s “Humor Police,” which jarringly alternates between a dissonant drone and an Arab-folk romp of lutes and fiddles that may as well be ‘authentic.’ “They don’t like my style,” he sneers, but “they” (the Humor Police) are also long past being able to do anything about it.
Most of Funeral Mariachi, however, struck a more meditative tone than “Ben’s Radio,” and the majority of Baroque Primitiva is cut from the same cloth. The fact that Baroque Primitiva, unlike bro Sir Richard Bishop’s raga/Fahey work, contains more than a kernel of Sun City Girls’ spirit is very good news — the album feels at its best like resurrection, bodes well for immortality — though fans of Alvarius B’s gnarled, Jandek-esque opi in the 90s might be a bit taken aback by the shift from jagged to horizontal. (As one might expect from such an explosively creative band, SCG were rarely capable of keeping their side-project monikers in neat manila folders; genres, approaches, and recording techniques crisscross throughout catalogs, and chronology is often the better bet.) Like the swan song, Baroque Primitiva is a thing of beauty foremost, and it’s even more content that its weirdness will glow through without burning down the whole damn house. If “Ben’s Radio” felt like everything Sun City Girls could manage in a trash-compactor, “The Dinner Party” feels like the opposite; its breezy lyrical syncopation (in fluent Spanish) and moonlit strumming succeeds in the so-perfect-it’s-funny school that Ween failed to nail in the twilight of their own career.
“Mussolini’s Exit,” however, more accurately signals the sort of casual brilliance that glues the album together. Two central characteristics define it. First, the song is stripped-down yet deceptively complex; it’s impossible to know which overtone-wrung chord it’ll veer into moment for moment, but every one feels grateful. Second, it abandons language entirely for syllabic “doop-do-dah” play. These two motifs come up repeatedly, to the point of constituting a real sonic core on the album. The stark hoots on “Like That Madri Gal” sound blurry at first, but like a tantric “Mussolini,” the song gradually opens into a remarkably warm interplay of space (each of Alvarius’ hoots comes from a different place in a very large room) and tone. Closet highlight “Naturally Absolute” is insanely hummable both in spite of and because of the different vocal layers joining in from just outside 4/4. And few SCG songs ever sat still long enough to capture a moment of death as cinematically as “Face to Face With a Couple Axes,” an appropriately-titled heap of Spaghetti Western hums. A song like “3 Dead Girls” might start out sounding almost complacent in its rotary prettiness before a wonderfully crooked falsetto line pins itself to you. Folks are already mentioning The Beatles a lot with this record; barring sour connotations, I too propose that a certain child-and-vinyl tickle creeps up around these melodies. Like several others here that could have been real sun-dried odysseys, “Girls” is over before you know it.
The importance of said ‘glue’ notwithstanding, most listeners will understandably tend to gravitate toward the songs sung in English. “Well Known Stranger” comes off as the album’s centerpiece, but besides being a particularly bittersweet tune whose title encapsulates the eternal draw of a guy like Alvarius B, it’s built around a lot of the same more-than-you-think subversion; cycling pianos rise like vapor when Alvarius lets lines like “gotta leave the farm” hang in the air, and a gravity-bound thud is scarcely audible throughout. Two of the other English songs are covers, of a strangely Western variety from a dude so thrilling for his random pop-quiz dips into various ‘World’ traditionals. One cover’s a surprisingly successful Bond tune; the other is some obscure Beach Boys song that starts out plenty squelched, loses itself in noise and loops, and emerges a MAD Magazine fold-in (see title).
The latter, closing out the album, is a bid for the sort of indeterminacy that characterized Sun City Girls’ decade-and-a-half career, but it’s exciting because of the confidently established space it proceeds to fill. Charles Gocher may have kept the brothers Bishop on creative rapid-fire while he was alive, but at least one album into Alvarius B’s post-SCG career, a degree of patience has unexpectedly paid off. Whether Baroque Primitiva’s hypnosis is a product of careful architecture, lunacy aged like fine wine, or flat-out unavoidable twitches in an attempt to remain tame will only be clear in hindsight. But you know what we like to do with serious things like hindsight. I say, in proud SCG tradition, let the clog continue!