When first putting the needle down on Funeral Maricahi, I expected to be in for the kind of crazy, unpredictable aural adventure that only Sun City Girls deliver. Having released over 70 recordings of adventurous and at times bewildering material fusing rock and various ethnic styles with an often aggressive avant-garde edge, odds were good their final studio album would be as wild as ever.
Opening track “Ben’s Radio” certainly met these expectations, a tempo-shifting exploration of Eastern and African styles, accompanied by raucous group vocals. Reminiscent of the Radio series of dial-turning field recordings issued by SCG guitarist Alan Bishop’s label Sublime Frequencies, the song is slightly disorienting with its abrupt changes. The following track, “The Imam,” continues in this vein, beginning with a shrill horn blaring intermittently amidst rapid-fire acoustic guitar playing. But a shift in tone occurs mid-song, the music settling down into a calm rhythm as Alan begins singing in a keening, Arabesque wail. Following such a spiky beginning, the vocal is disarming in its unmannered allure, and the remainder of the album continues in a similarly subdued, lyrical manner. It’s a totally unexpected approach for the band to take for their final release, and all the more powerful and affecting for it.
Not that Sun City Girls haven’t played it straight before. Although known as incorrigible pranksters and wise-asses, there’s never been any doubt to the seriousness and proficiency of their musicianship. For 27 years, brothers Alan and Rick Bishop played alongside drummer Charles Gocher to create some of the most complex, challenging American music of the last three decades. By stubbornness and/or good luck, they remained a true underground institution at a time when even the most careerist-defying bands would eventually find some form of forced exposure that would attract a wider audience. They never had designs on anything resembling fame, though, and their lunatic take on a hodgepodge of musical styles combined with a confrontational stage presence often obscured what great musicians they were, assuring they’d remain a curio to most. Gocher’s death from cancer in February 2007 led the Bishops to formally declare the end of SCG, though a deep archive of live recordings will probably ensure future releases for a good long while.
Gocher’s illness may explain the more gentle tone of Funeral Mariachi, which was recorded shortly before his death and has an unusually high amount of straightforward tunes for the band. The ever-present African and Arabic influences are filtered through a mellow folk sensibility, and songs such as “This Is My Name” and “El Solo” reveal a seductiveness rarely displayed by the band. Many songs are driven by Richard’s lovely piano playing, and with its high-pitched vocal, “Vine Street Piano” sounds not unlike, believe it or not, Sigur Rós. The second half of the album is dominated by an Ennio Morricone influence, “Blue West” and “Mineral Wells” sounding as though they were lifted straight from a 60s Spaghetti Western soundtrack. SCG offer their own twisted take on the Western ballad with “Holy Ground” before tackling one of Morricone’s most famous pieces, “Come Maddalena.” The title track closes the album, and it’s as fitting a tribute to Gocher and farewell to the band as one could hope. A mournful tune complete with requisite baleful mariachi trumpet, it never slips into melancholy or sentimentality.
Sun City Girls have long had to deal with accusations of cultural tourism, suggestions that they were taking the piss with sacred musics of the world. That’s partly true, but probably not in the way their critics meant. For some, their mashups of music from exotic locales most of us would never physically visit was a welcome contrast to the piety of WOMAD, an answer to the Gabriels, Simons, and Stings who smugly pontificated on “world music” to Rolling Stone and CNN. These guys often acted as if they discovered these musical cultures the way Columbus discovered America. That’s harsh, and the pros and cons of WOMAD is a complex subject, but in the 80s and early 90s, there wasn’t a lot of distribution for non-Western music in America, and to have to suffer through receiving it via the filter of milquetoast millionaire rock stars was kind of galling. Sun City Girls reminded or even taught us that this music didn’t have to be treated with reverence, that it was amendable to the playful rules of rock ’n’ roll or Fluxus-like tweaking. But listen to the singing on “Imam” and “Black Orchid” and tell me there’s not a deep love and respect for Arabic music there. Listen to the playing on virtually any track on Funeral Mariachi and you’ll hear the feeling that immersion in foreign countries for prolonged periods has brought to their playing.
It might seem foolish or maybe just hopeful to call Funeral Mariachi accessible, since this music will only ever appeal to a marginal audience. But the wild men who still love to cop an attitude and provoke have created an album of unexpected beauty. They go out not with a bang or a whimper, but with a wide-eyed and confident work tinged with sadness, knowing they were part of something truly unique and amazing that met an untimely end.