The Growlers display their powerfully unique and authentic style on ‘Casual Acquaintances’
For more than a decade now, The Growlers have been the best-kept secret in indie rock. Despite the act’s diligent, unrelenting approach to both touring and recording, which has resulted in their current boasting of a dedicated cult audience, many members of which enthusiastically gather at the group’s D.I.Y. music festival Beach Goth yearly, commercial success has proved elusive for the California-based act. As the not-so-gradual evolution in approach to the production choices and overall aesthetics of The Growlers’ last few albums reveals, this has certainly not been for lack of trying. Their unique style, which the moniker for their festival is borrowed from, is simultaneously anachronistic and forward-thinking, sounding something like The Doors backing a lead vocalist reminiscent of a fuller and much more ravaged voiced Bob Dylan with lyrics written by Johnny Cash if he had developed a penchant for consuming a variety of psychedelics.
After honing this ‘Beach Goth’ genre to blissfully bizarre perfection on their third official LP, 2013’s Hung at Heart, the group purposefully inflated and polished their aesthetic on the relatively streamlined Chinese Fountain (2014). This move toward something tauter and bolder was echoed on their (to-date) only release on The Strokes frontman Julian Casablancas’ Cult Records, City Club (2016), an album tinged with African, electronic, and 60s pop inflections which instantly proved divisive amongst Growlers fans due to its inherent nature as a departure from the original lo-fi and idiosyncratic sound of the group.
Having served as a co-producer of the album, Casablancas’ enthusiastic approach for injecting strange (and often compelling) throwbacks to 80s pop, more straightforward rock, and obscure harmonic elements is unmistakably apparent on City Club. This fact provides the basis for much of the derision for Casablancas by the album’s detractors; simply put, many view the blending of The Growlers and the larger, more streamlined and familiar sound as disappointing and destructive of the purity and specialness the group’s sound. Casual Acquaintances, consisting of tracks that were created without the involvement of Casablancas, and which ultimately went unused for City Club, offers an entrancing offering of a matured Growlers sound largely untouched by the production and songwriting choices incorporated in both Chinese Fountain and City Club to make the group’s work more likely to succeed with a larger, more mainstream audience. In other words, the release treats fans with the Art in a cleaner form, one unimpacted by the decisions necessitated by Commerce.
Opening with the tantalizingly-short, bouncy overture ‘Neveah,’ Casual Acquaintances is, both musically and lyrically, an addictive and comforting exploration of the struggles inevitably encountered with the passage of time, especially with regard to dedicating one’s life to ‘outsider’ endeavors such as artmaking. Lead singer Brooks Nielsen, a fine melodist and poet, expresses himself eloquently and interestingly lyrically, displaying a wearied, yet hopeful, approach to his toil, often celebrating the struggle itself as a triumph, warmly elucidating the small pleasures which accompany and define its endless nature:
‘Problems come in threes, then we beat ‘em down
It’s nothing when compared to the hangovers we’ve shared
But rent’s on time, we’ve got cigs and cheap red wine
Come on and share my table and pour your heart into mine.’
The inarguably authentic nature of Nielsen’s laconic words is crucial in a cultural landscape where the messages, and the way they are expressed, in the works of not only the major pop stars, but the alternative stars championed by outlets such as Pitchfork, seem far too contrived, too hollow, too inhuman. When was the last time a musician, especially one in their early thirties who has toiled on the road for a decade – most of his youth – sang with relief about something like the fact that the rent is not in arrears (the obvious implication being that he does not even own a house after all of his endeavors), let alone meant it? Nielsen refreshingly reminds us of sacrifice and struggle, singing only of what he knows, not what he knows sells. Vapidity and ego is erased and the genuine and grounded is all that remains. If that is not enough to inspire envy within lyricists everywhere, Nielsen also accomplishes this gracefully and entertainingly, using highly-inventive and colorful imagery to do so (‘I spread the shards of vanity causing me such agony’, ‘I am the dancing bear, this song’s my gypsy’, ‘Darley had her own views/Downloaded through hesitation’).
The tight grooves and retro riffs, supplied by lead guitarist and co-chief songwriter Matt Taylor, are also highly impressive, often brilliant. As always with The Growlers’ music, one of the chiefs draws is the creativity and playfulness that shape the arrangements. Here, the basslines are as locked-in and melodic as they’ve always been, the drumming as appropriate and restrained, and the guitars as biting and lovely. Each element is so cleverly chosen and delightful that the work proves rewarding and pleasurable throughout more than multiple listens. There is a beauty, a complete ignorance of prevailing trends, especially on this new release, something gorgeous and unbelievably organic. Unusual touches like the synth countermelodies on ‘Drop Your Phone in the Sink’ that echo those played on the theremin on The Beach Boys’ ‘Good Vibrations’ are just the icing on the cake. When things get heavy as on ‘Thing for Trouble,’ or modal and odd with ‘The Pavement and the Boot,’ one’s appreciation for the group only increases as we recognize their skill manifested in musical diversity. Truly, it just becomes apparent that The Growlers are undoubtedly one of the most hardworking (‘I would never even think to blame this all on luck,’ Nielsen sings dryly at one point) and talented groups existing today.
The Growlers, as reflected by Nielsen’s lyrics, lust not after ultimately-worthless social status and commodities, instead demonstrating a valuable and inspiring dedication to their music, returning and clinging to everything that rock and roll, as an art form, promised to deliver in the first place – unabashed freedom and a right to defiantly express one’s beliefs, to relish in being an outsider – before it was corrupted by the larger forces at play, before everyone, including the music makers, lost sight of it. As succinctly conveyed in the lyrics of the dynamic ‘Thing for Trouble,’ which may be the best song on the album, conformity is stagnation and sticking to one’s guns is progression, the real growth: ‘I could never grow up but I don’t feel stuck.’ While the group have, perplexingly, been snobbishly dismissed, or at least largely ignored, by most of the major publications, organisations, and independent reviewers who possess the ability to get the word out about new music and to help to create visibility of acts, one hopes that the reach of the band somehow increases via their perseverance, that the ‘labour of their love,’ as Nielsen phrases it, soon rewards both the group and audiences, even if this requires more tweaking of the formula. In the meantime, purists have ten great new cuts to enjoy.
Casual Acquaintances is highly recommended. It is a fantastic album by a miracle of a band whose vocalist believes that he’s still ‘gonna miss the struggle if it all pans out.’ Let’s hope it does.