From the moment ‘Hi-Fi Lowlife’s opening track ‘Waiting on the Smoke to Clear’ kicks off with a swirling blast of electronic fuzziness, only for a set of gently resonating piano chords to carve through the aural smog (or smoke?), the sensation that we’re in for some kind of psychedelic-laden rock’n’roll ‘experience’ is all but inescapable.
And so it proves. On Slow Parade’s second album in five years, the Atlanta-based band and its leader Matthew Pendrick have produced nine tracks worth of whimsical and weird insight into modern life and existentialist angst. These kinds of lyrics have a pretty natural home in the off-beat, individualistic world of psychedelia, and track names veering from the macabre – like ‘Let it Bleed’, a far cry from the eponymous Rolling Stones tale of hedonistic delights of four decades ago – to the downright odd – ‘Black Balloon’ or ‘The Turd in the Punchbowl’ aren’t exactly titles purloined from Ye Olde Country’n’Western Songbooke – sum up the general modus operandi pretty well.
But for all the in-your-face cosmic vibrations, rather than turning out to be a Prog. Rock concept album (or pretentious crap as that latter genre, one of 60s psychedelia’s less fortunate offspring, has also been called) ‘Hi-Fi Lowlife’ thankfully keeps at least one vaguely Americana-sounding cowboy boot on the ground. In fact, between all the bursts of feedback and general instrumental mayhem, what’s on offer is a succession of solid, relatively conventional song formats and styles that veer between swampy blues (‘Black Balloon’) to spit’n’sawdust ditties (‘The Turd in The Punchbowl’) to electric folk anthems like‘ Waiting on the Smoke to Clear‘. There’s even a chunk of alt.country sounding Grunge for anybody still nostalgic for the early 1990s on ‘Do Not Disturb‘.
The combination of all of the above on a single album is a curious, quirky mix all right, with echoes of other open-ended, hard-hitting, mind-bending mixtures of genres like ’13 Tales of Urban Bohemia’ or even the Beatles in their ‘White Album/Sgt. Pepper’ era. (Is that a sitar we hear, humming away in best flower-power style, in the background of ‘Ebb and Flow’?).
Anyway, ‘HighFi-LowLife’ is arguably most appealing because – in keeping with the dream-like elements of the best 1960s psychedelia of the Beatles variety – it seems to pride itself on never letting you know what’s around the corner. Even better, apart from the radically different styles, none of the songs are too long to keep your mind, Fixing a Hole-style, from wandering, neatly blending serious social matters with the flippant: who’d have thought that underneath the Cobain-esque Grunge, ‘Do Not Disturb’ is a love song dedicated, in the wryest of terms, to the I-phone?
There are lots of shimmering, disembodied voices and distorted patterns of feedback floating around as well just to maintain the space-y, disconnected feel of it all. All in all, ‘Hi-Fi Lowlife’ seems to flee normal-sounding music and sounds as if it were a matter of principle, which can get a shade monotonous in itself. But overall it holds well together, right down to the laconic, low-key signing off song of ‘Baggage Claim’, where the end of one trip – psychedelic or otherwise – seems to fold neatly into whatever the listener wants to imagine should come along next.
“Pack your bags will it all fit?
You’ve brought a lot of extra shit
But now the zipper won’t quite close
The turnstile gleams, around they go
Out to the train you’ll have to catch
That black balloon, these old regrets will float away,
And when you let them – float away.”