PICKING UP GOOD VIBRATIONS Secret Cities

Channeling
an icon and music legend without falling prey to recycling ain’t easy, but this
North Dakota trio, amazingly, pulls it off.

 

BY JOHN SCHACHT

 

Brian Wilson’s musical legacy has been cannibalized so
voraciously over the past few years that name-checking Beach Boy No. 1 is
tantamount to a Listener Advisory sticker: Beware!
Delusions of production grandeur within!
The pleasure-to-pretension ratio from
all this thieving, cribbing and homage is frankly woeful; Ouija Boarding Pet Sounds-Wilson while you obsess over dozens
of vocal tracks is no guarantee of good vibrations.

 

Contextual rant over, it’s almost shocking to hear a band
that gets it without recycling
Wilson’s sonic carcass, and, even better yet, pulls it off on an album openly
inspired by him. Pink Graffiti, Pt. 1 (Western Vinyl), the debut from a trio of landlocked North Dakotans who call themselves
Secret Cities, is less a concept record than a meditation on youthful innocence
colored by an adult’s wistful – and therefore Wilsonian – rear-view mirror
vantage. But Secret Cities filters Wilson
through its own musical touchstones, citing a range from Steve Riley minimalism
to the fractured psych pop of The Presidents of the United States.  And somehow in the process and confluence the
record goes meta: this is music about
the music that’s about Brian Wilson as much as it’s actually about Brian Wilson.
That may read like a college thesis – and, in fact, that’s where the album
sprung from, along with a chance meeting with the de facto spokesperson for
vibrant youth and Endless Summers.

 

Yet the last thing Pink
Graffiti, Pt. 1
sounds like is an academic exercise in Wilson worship. The songs may comment on lost
innocence, but including Wilson’s
own legacy in the “lost” equation creates a perspective-shift that ripples
through this record like the butterfly effect. The trio of Marie Parker,
Charlie Gokey and Alex Abnos shade these 10 songs in the psychedelic music that
first drew them together, but they don’t rest there. Instead of Merry Prankster
jams or edge-of-madness Barrett-mania, Secret Cities opt for lush,
cross-generational collages of distorted loops, drones, and thundering toms through
which distant voices drift. Piano and strings create orchestral tides to
contrast with rough-hewn acoustic guitars and found sounds that read like tinny
AM-radio transmissions. But even as these strange arrangements and frequencies envelop
you, the melodies remain vibrant and out front.

 

And it’s how they blend these polymath textures and
influences that really charms. Track-by-track examination can signal a
reviewer’s inability to find the thematic red thread (hey, it’s happened), but
the way these songs fold into each other is a big part of this record’s sub-narrative.
The lush opening of “Pink City” – whose fluttering harp glissandos, sitar-like
guitar lines and sibilating synths sound like “Fake Plastic Trees”-era
Radiohead underpinned by Le Loup’s tribal joy – resolves its “We had a lot to
say” chorus-cum-incantation with a final resigned sigh, “but it would take all
day,” before drifting into the dangerously habit-forming “Boyfriends.” The
contrast is immediate, the connections entirely logical. The song name-checks
the record’s inspiration at the top, and does so without shame: “Brian Wilson
and me,” Gokey sings in a muffled, warbling falsetto as he recounts meeting the
legend who, of course, turns out to be flesh and blood. Given this era’s
scavenging, your inclination is to dismiss what would be galling pretension in inept
hands, but Gokey quickly adds that Wilson
“never told me anything true” and “those good vibrations never came.” Besides,
dissing the song is out of the question because you’ve already been totally
disarmed by its “Whistle While You Work”-like melody, which evolves into an
enormous hook embracing stomping guitars and thunderheads of percussion — these dwarves sound more like really
determined teamsters.

 

Those songs comprise a great one-two opening, but the record’s
spot-on sequencing keeps highlighting new variations in the band’s arranging
skills. With an ethereal Parker taking over the mic, “Slacker” goes orchestral
pop, staccato piano chords punctuating indigo strings as though Stereolab were
doing “Eleanor Rigby.” On “Pink Graffiti, Pt. 2,” Celeste-like keys and low-end
bowed contrabass provide more immediate but compatible contrast. While the
juxtaposition is occupying your ears, it frees the trio to dial up the tension
almost imperceptibly. They fatten the arrangement with additional layers of
keys and drums and voices, and when the final chorus – the hymn-like refrain “I
know, I know she still loves me/I know, I know she still needs me” – arrives,
it lifts you out of melancholy on its broad shoulders.

 

Intermission comes with the instrumental “Wander,” its
alternating major and minor piano chords buffeted by glitchy, chop shop beats, both
processed and organic a la Four Tet. That presages another shift to the aptly
named “Color,” a top-down summer pop track speckled with giddy vibes and sunny horns;
blended with Parker’s layered girl group vocals and some well-placed guitar intervals,
the song recalls Camera Obscura or the Concretes. The track drifts off on
simple guitar strums and trap beats that segue into “Aw Rats,” which opens with
toy piano and a field recording of children at play. It’s a clever feint,
though, because the song takes a sinister turn into an urgent note-bending guitar
riff and cymbal explosions. At the bridge, Gokey’s far-off vocals emerge
dreamily on a banjo’s pizzicato notes before diving back beneath the smudged
riffs and percussion thunder; this is
what you wish Sufjan Stevens sounded like.

 

There are even great things to recommend the record’s slightly-less-impressive
songs. “Pink Graffiti, Pt. 1” tilts 80s, trundled along by era-typical synths
and a metronomic beat somewhere between New Order and Tears for Fears. But
glitches, loops and strings provide some sonic and historical depth, and any
lingering preconceptions about the track reading nostalgic vanish in another
tension-building bridge — on the other side of which the whistled theme from “Pink
Graffiti, Pt. 2” re-emerges like a smiling (but kinda cuckoo) friend. “Vamos A
La Playa” also reads like an 80s track, but in a darker shade resembling, say, Kiss Me Kiss Me Kiss Me Cure, only with
a bit of Spanish flavoring tacked on at the end justifying the title – all
told, maybe the record’s weakest link.

 

Redemption follows, though, with “The End,” a slice of ‘60s’
London-in-Autumn psychedelia with guitars like stained
glass sunlight (think The Clientele) and strings that fill every crevice of the
melody not already occupied by vocal luminosity; Parker sings this like a
paisley hymn reverberating through Old World
cathedrals. The track’s rapturous nature may have you thinking that the band
has finally succumbed and genuflected at the altar of the icon; you’d only be
partially right. Just moments before “The End,” Gokey sings on “Vamos” that “I
can’t believe in a new good vibration,” and Secret Cities has followed through
on that promise. They’ve honored Wilson
in the best possible way: by burning his myth at the stake so that he may rise
and join them in their future. Marvelous, marvelous stuff.

 

 

 

 

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