Now Hear This
Sumack may call the music it makes "junkrock," but it sells itself short. A cross between Soul Coughing and Timbuk 3, this Los Angeles band serves up a well-tailored smorgasbord of groove, complete with social and psychological insight and topical commentary. And even when it misses the mark (despite its prettiness, "The Ballad of Frank & Charlie" is a saccharine cap to an otherwise sharp disc), Sumack's heart and head are in the right place.
The first track, "Metaphysical," is a dandy, living up to its title while trashing it. Sparked by Mark McAdam's tart guitar, the song chronicles how a hero so modest he's arrogant resists the advances of a Valley Girl gone granola. Not only does it send up all things "natural," it does so in a funny, contemporary way. The other scenes Sumack draws up are just as zany. Take "Do Si Do," a slacker dance tune about wallflowers and insecurity. The chorus is recognizable, but the bleeps aren't; all combine to paint a picture that's nearly familiar, but not quite. Like so many other Sumack songs, this makes the listener strain for something just outside of earshot. And all the while, Sumack plays passionately, alternating minimalist arrangements with full-bodied vocals to craft nifty, unexpected delights.
The disc boasts all kinds of what might be called symmetries, with songs functioning as doppelgängers -- linking meaning, even when the tracks don't adjoin. The wistful shuffle "Downfall Days," complete with cowbell and turntable scratches, is a kind of companion to the collegiate picture of "Hey Professor," one of the best songs ever written about a Volvo. The twangy, rocking "Superdome," Sumack's homage to the Beastie Boys, shares terrain, if not sonics, with the minimalist rockabilly of "Train Song." But trying to categorize Sumack's music is fruitless. Maybe that's why McAdam and drummer Pete McNeil call their music junkrock. It's a simple way to sum up Sumack's omnivorous, fascinating style. The proof of Sumack's pudding is that you find yourself humming their tunes, even though you're not quite sure what they mean.