Album Review: Allah-Las – Calico Review

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Allah-Las

Garage Rockers ditch the surf for a slightly lame look at country and psychedelia. (7/10)

For fans of The Beatles, The Kinks, The Velvet Underground, The Growlers, Ty Segal, Temples, King Khan and The Shines.

From their first LP (released 2012 on Nick Waterhouse’s Innovative Leisure) the Allah-Las have established themselves as a vital, perhaps important band within the American garage scene. Not only were they groovier, more musical and gorgeously rawer than others but the band possessed a certain authenticity, a unique kind of authenticity that, although pure, is not entirely retrogressive. If you aren’t familiar with them expect sharp reverb drenched surf tones, lo-fi funky beats and howling kinks-esc vocals. Their first two LPs are full of contemporary-retro gems, and they’re amazing live.

A good spectrum of their tunes are in-your-face, infectious slappers, the other side, slightly less. For me, some of the Allah-Las music is a bit like jazz; it’s a vibe, a feeling or a really cool groove, not a poppy or structured “song” but a “tune”. Whether it be an inexplicably good guitar break (nowhere to hide), a moment of pure fuzz freakout (long journey), the electrifying explosion of organ (catamaran) or the stoned, jangly interplay of twelve string guitars (Tell Me What’s On Your Mind) the Allah-Las create euphoric vibes, not songs. This does not, however, excuse the fact they have a habit of slipping into mellow obscurity, going nowhere and occasionally crafting some dreary, sloppy melodies. The Allah-Las are kings of groove but definitely not songwriting. Both their first and second albums (self-titled and Worship The Sun) have the ability to conjure moments of ecstasy, yet also to conjure moments of boring plateau. Rather disappointingly with this album, however, those moments of ecstasy become rarer, but perhaps most frustratingly, better.

That isn’t to say the album is awful, The Allah-Las are almost certainly experimenting here, and they’ve grown as musicians too. There’re better bass lines, less generic chord progressions and the guitar playing, as always, is VERY, very cool. The band is making wavey developments to their sound also, brandishing a strange concoction of rockabilly, country and folk psychedelia, an interesting expansion on their previously surf/R&B sound. There’re moments of musical brilliance yet the band seems to digress from them too quickly, distracted by something far less good. They’re damaged by a lack of decent musical ideas, safe playing and wet melodies, because of this they fall disappointingly short of the grade in a record full of potential.

Here’s my track-by-track review:

The album starts with a high, in first track Strange Heat. The vibraphones are a nice touch, giving it a haunting ambiance, the sporadic guitar line in the back frolicking around like a voodoo dancer. The worryingly stoned, trashy rhythm in second track Satisfied, with descending magical mystery tour vocals and chugging spring reverb is another cool in-your-face groover. Yet it’s here we get the first example of our problem – the guitar breaks played through a B3 rotary are heavenly, absolutely making the track. But it last for about four bars, the idea is just thrown away, lost amongst something far less good. The Allah-Las have a habit of doing this.

The single Could Be You is the pacier, nodding firmly to the Velvet Undergrounds ‘Foggy Notion’ in rhythm and Bob Dylan’s ‘ It’s All Over Now Baby Blue’ melodically. There’s a definite riff-snatch from The Smiths ‘Headmasters Ritual’ thrown in there too. It’s got a nice vibe but it’s far from the best track on this LP – it’s not single quality. I’m left craving heavier/louder drums and a more anthemic chorus – it all just feels slightly flat.

High and dry is the best track so far, definitely one of the best on the album. A super funky rhythm, Meters-style with Stoner/drunken vocals and stumbling, playful guitar, way more Mac Demarco than garage rock and roll. The track’s tongue in cheek, bashful and has the killer groove, its also some of the best songwriting they’ve accomplished so far and I struggle to see why this wasn’t the single. I really want to see more of this kind of thing, but again, the whole track could just use a slight boost – louder, crashier drums, angrier guitar…just more ‘ommmmph!’

Mausoleum is a slightly forgettable ballad really but it’s a definite example of the band’s growth of musical ability. It has a nice start but, goes nowhere for a while (annoyingly an already established album theme). The Allah-Las then do a classic them, teasing us with another delicious 3-second reverbed guitar line then launching into a very solid middle eight. Another bunch of painfully good throwaway ideas cocooned within a highly mediocre shell. It’s a shame and it’s starting to exasperate me.

Roadside memorial is a great example of the band’s new genre hopping. There’s jangly country guitar over Spanish-influenced acoustic strumming rhythms, country harmonies, and a frantic Bo Diddley beat. It’s nice to see the band experiment with its sound. Again, however, the groove and instrumentation are finely crafted and exciting but the melody poor and uninventive, it strangles the track. Then they do ANOTHER classic them: there’s a rousing heavy break at the end of the track and it starts fading out. Like I said, I really want to see more of this and it’s just binned carelessly at the end, either these guys don’t know what they have or they don’t know what they want.

Autumn Dawn does exactly the same thing, scarily methodically:

1). Nice! A descending Clav and sweet jazzy Bass, very strawberry fields. It’s a great sound, they’ve definitely grown as musicians here.

2). Woah!!! The drop is nice – here’s the ‘ommph’ I’m talking about!

3). Nope back down into something far less good.

4). Rest of the song bobs along without any real interesting development or stand out melody. Allah-Las trademark slightly flat background reverb vocals bellow in the background.

5). Back to the cool rhythm (why was this not the song??) *cries*.

Famous Phone Figure would fit snuggly in The Beach Boy’s ‘Smile’, it’s a nice bout of melodic psychedelia, complete with Ringo’s plodding drums and ‘Daisy chains’. The Allah-Las make the transition here from psych to psychedelia and they do it very pleasantly. I’m not bowled over, but it’s definitely ear-candy – the beautifully orchestrated strings droning in the background. It’s really interesting to see them experiment in this way, it works.

200 South La Brea genuinely sounds like the melody from Starland Vocal Bands 1976 hit ‘Afternoon Delight’. It’s a classic example of where the Allah-Las do not deliver, a forgettable jangle riff, a forgettable vocal melody, a forgettable vibe. It lacks any excitement save the ‘afternoon delight’ bit where I can sing ‘afternoon delight’ whilst laughing, fondly remembering that scene from Anchorman. The fun is over and I’m bored once more. I wait for it to predictably carousel back round, much like waiting for the blast of cool air from a swinging fan on a muggy, stale day. Easily the worst track on the album.

Warmed Kippers has some very cool heavy fuzz guitar, which is the only thing this track has to offer. It’s very boring, and I fear the rest of the album will go this way.

Terra Ignota comes on and things get interesting again. It’s got a stirring intro with waltz-y, warm folk guitars and explosive, reverb-doused shadows-style embellishments. Psych-Folk rock really suits them, there’s chilled, flipping sitar style licks near the end, and some acidy vocal tape delay – this is the spice very much need after a couple of bland courses.

The final track, Place In The Sun is a good closer, the lazy, Julian Casablancas vocals croon over a shuffle-y beat, awesome bass groove, and dramatic Vox Continental underpinning. Despite this the chorus is highly throwaway – a shame, apart from this the song has an excellent vibe. “For you…for you” is infectiously scuzzy and the tracks moody ambiance, and fuzzy crackling continues to crescendo. Soaring backing vocals cut through with a slightly more frantic guitar line that starts to excite me. Even here, however, there’s still that feeling. The album is not perfect, but the ideas are there. It’s a turbulent relationship, there are moments of excitement and moments of disappointment

I want to hear aggression, not necessarily pace. I want to hear funk and power not constant chill and throw away melody. But is that just totally the Allah-Las style? Chilled, laid back, no rush – I want to see them get frantic again. They do it so bloody well: Catamaran, Long Journey, Tell Me (What’s On Your Mind), Every Girl, 501-415, No Werewolf – all fabulous tracks by a fabulous band. The Allah-Las genuinely have the power within them to bring out one of this decade’s best albums, I believe in them, they just need to move out of the shallow surf and into deep, more risky territory.

However for now, compositionally, instrumentally and certainly through The Allah-Las enchanting trademark production, Calico Review provides us with moments of excellence, even perfection, yet it’s haunted by the ghost of both forgettable and frustratingly poor decisions.

Highs – The sound is so good. Amazingly produced, pure retro ear-candy. The guitar playing is captivating and emotional, the beats are cool. Would be amazing live.

Lows – Everything cool they do on this album is throw-away on top of a nice groove, they have a habit of not going anywhere. Instrumentation excellent but songwriting slips into obscurity.

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