Wednesday, February 8, 2017

album review: 'ty segall' by ty segall

It seems like Ty Segall has done more in the past ten years than several artists do in their entire careers. Starting from the pits of garage rock before exploding towards the abrasive fuzz of lo-fi, the garish trappings of old-school glam rock, and a whirlwind of noisy psychedelia in between, he doesn't so much burn through musical genres so much as pick up additional layers and ideas wherever he ventures, piling them into a gleefully nihilistic pot that would eventually wear out its welcome if it wasn't so captivating in a twisted way.

Now I've covered two of his albums already on this show, neither quite being my favourites of his assorted work - those would be the more acoustic and yet gorgeoulsy melodic Sleeper and the absolutely insane project he did under The Ty Segall Band, Slaughterhouse. His 2014 project Manipulator was probably his most ornate affair, his 2016 album Emotional Mugger his most ugly and alien - both firmly grounded in unsettling conceptual territory that lent to some very good songs... but not quite great albums as a whole. And so I wasn't entirely surprised that he was opening 2017 with a self-titled release, the second of his career, reportedly rounding up some of his old band to compile all the accumulated ideas... but it was a name in the production credits that really caught my eye: legendary producer and professional curmudgeon Steve Albini. Make no mistake, his name alone tends to do a lot to rope me in, so you can bet that if Ty Segall was pulling a band together for a wild recording, it'd probably cut hard, so you can bet I wanted to hear this. So what does Ty Segall deliver?

Honestly, I was pretty underwhelmed with this release - and that's the last thing I want to say about a record that's clearly aiming to be a looser, almost jam-inspired record. I'm not going to say it's a regression - Ty Segall is still a sharp enough writer and composer that even if this was a record aiming for a looser style that he still wrings out some hooks - but it's nowhere near as rough-edged or abrasive as I was hoping and without stronger thematic consistency... well, it feels like he threw his conventional sound into a melting pot to see what would come out, and while there's a fair amount that's good, there's not a lot of standouts.

And that's a bizarre thing to say when you hear that Ty Segall was actually looking to make this more of a 'song-driven' project, give greater focus to individual tracks in order to refine the melodic songwriting, so let's start with that. One thing I've always admired about Segall is that he does place more of a focus on melodic composition and doesn't feel the need to just let the riffs seethe without a decent tune, and that's as true here as it is always is. But I can't be the only one who when listening to 'Freedom' started to get flashbacks to the opening riffs of 'Threshold', a lo-fi track that Beck wrote for the Scott Pilgrim soundtrack, they're almost identical! Of course, 'Threshold' actually held its transitions together, which isn't something I can really say about that song... which is a little bizarre, considering Segall followed that song with 'Warm Hands (Freedom Returned)' and the many, many transitions that occurred over that song's ten minute length were actually handled pretty well. But that leads to the second issue, in that this record can meander, especially when you encounter songs that are more underwritten than I would otherwise expect. Don't get me wrong, I like 'Warm Hands (Freedom Returned)' for the most part, but you can't tell me that around the five minute mark it doesn't start to lose the plot a bit as it ebbs back - again, the tones are appealing, but it has the feel of a laid-back jam session that's going to take its sweet time getting back to the point. 

But again, that softer feel overall is consistent across this project - more piano and mid-tempo delivery and cadences, complete with cooing vocal overdubs that bear more than a passing wink back to T-Rex's softer songs or even the Beatles at points. And again, i'm not going to say it's a bad thing - the sweeter tunes are certainly there, like the sandy acoustics of 'Orange Color Queen' and 'Take Care (To Comb Your Hair)' that lead to pretty great fuzzy solos, and the odd Bowie feel in the melodic composition and vocals led to the hook of 'Papers' mostly working for me - but I also feel like an opportunity was missed. Steve Albini's production is poised and clear as always, but that's a golden opportunity for the rougher garage tones on songs like 'Break A Guitar' and 'The Only One' to really sizzle, and it feels like the smoother tones for the quieter pieces just don't satisfy in the same way, especially on songs like 'Papers' that's relying on the piano for the majority of its melodic tone. Of course, on the flip side you have the noise of 'Thank You Mr. K' that would seem to be a great case for this, but with the way the demented guitar melodies are layered it feels like an extra from Emotional Mugger, and that's before the song stops mid-momentum to literally interject the sounds of a shattering porcelain toilet before resuming into a delirious whirl of piano, riffing, and a melody that unfortunately just grates on my nerves.

So this is where we come around to content... and I don't know what to tell you folks, it's not bad writing but one of Segall's greatest underappreciated strengths is the ability to pull together fascinating themes with a distinctly twisted worldview. And a big hidden benefit to this is that it can make songs add up to more than their parts... and yet without it, the writing is catchy and detailed and textured  but doesn't quite rise beyond that. If I'm going to find a very loose theme, it's in cutting loose and casting aside fear, but all Segall seems to do is indulge in similar human venality that's filled all of his records. It can be reckless like on 'Break A Guitar' or 'Freedom' or utterly manic like on 'Thank You Mr. K' or just petty like on 'Talkin', or the fusion of all of it on 'Warm Hands (Freedom Returned)', which seems to be Segall's opportunity to enact some form of twisted revenge that seems to involve prostitution, it's not entirely clear. But then he follows it with sweet wistfulness on 'Take Care (To Comb Your Hair)' or just plain stoned-out love on 'Orange Color Queen'. If you can pull anything from it, his freedom is being able to make any choice and go in any direction, but that's not so much a theme but an artistic choice, and I'm not convinced that any of these tracks are as immediately strong as his best to stand on their own regardless.

And in a weird way that's where I fall on this album. It's not bad - Ty Segall is such a distinct artistic presence with a nimble grasp on melody that even when the songs aren't good I can't help but get them stuck in my brain - but I've heard him touch on similar sounds elsewhere better, which leaves this project feeling a little like a watered-down sampler. And really, when you collaborate with a legendary producer and the songs don't have more punch or textured impact, I can't help but leave a little disappointed. As such, I'm thinking a light 6/10, but only a recommendation if this is your first Ty Segall project and are curious about more. Beyond that... Slaughterhouse, Manipulator, Sleeper, even Emotional Mugger are all much more interesting, and I hope that Segall returns to that sort of more conceptual work soon. From interviews I've heard that he's already got that next album partially done, so it's only a matter of time.

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