Reviewing the music of a band like Sun City Girls is a bit obsolete. Over their exceedingly prolific, 31-year career, during which they have released over 50 LPs and cassettes combined and lost a member to cancer, they’ve been so crazy, scatterbrained, and negligent of the public’s concerns, that their free-form, genre-bending records almost defy criticism. Drawing as far and wide as Indian raga, surf-rock, American primitive, afro-beat, and even gamelan, they’re an orchestrated mess that could only stem from the most psychedelic of mentalities. When it comes down to it, you either like this stuff or you don’t. But even if you havent always been onboard–or simply havent ever heard of the enigmatic group–it’s never too late to start. On the experimental folk collective’s latest, Funeral Mariachi, the girls (who are actually guys) seem to have toned down some of their more off-putting eccentricities, leaving room for the more accessible shade of their insanity to shine through. It’s a well-produced record of melodic, and at times even lush, psychedelic folk-rock that elucidates where many contemporary psychedelic acts may have found influence over the years.
The record begins with its most inaccessible track, the Latin-tinged stereophonic mindfuck that is “Ben’s Radio”. It yells Feels era Animal Collective from every direction, all filtered through a fabricated Mexican radio station. It’s hard to tell if they’re actually singing Spanish words or just imitating the parlance, only adding to the madness. And though it’s not exactly the open invitation for the wary that it could be, things smooth out within a minute, as subtle drumming and vocal hums calm the track down before some screeching electric guitar squeals try to scare us away again. But don’t let these frenzied beginnings turn you off, because the ride levels out pretty quickly from here.
A stark contrast, the mellower “The Imam” pulls you in with its somewhat comforting, seemingly gibberish tribal chants and rhythms. It’s an afro-guitar rocker, drawing equally from Ali Farka Toure and The Doors. Kazoos fire off between insanely melodic, skittish hammers and pulls, jingling bells, and rhythmically implemented squeaky dog toys. A killer howl of a vocal soars atop eerily soothing baritone hums, like some demented version of a song from Disney’s The Lion King. “Black Orchid” sounds like a Muslim call to prayer on psychedelics. Standout “This Is My Name” is a gorgeous, afro-acid-folk hymn, fit with choral harmonies, buzzing electric guitar accompaniment, and whisper-hummed vocals. It also invites the first comprehensible English lyrics on the record, sung soothingly over warm, humming instrumentation. The beautiful “Vine Street Piano (Orchestral)” is a deep, piano-led instrumental interlude with whirring angelic female “oohs” and “ahs”, and frolicking acoustic and electric plucking. And, if you’ve made it this far, you’ve probably recognized that something special is going on here.
If you’ve heard some of the Girls’ earlier work, notably 1990’s Torch of The Mystics, you know that this is just a small dose of the lunacy they’re capable of. Relatively speaking, Funeral Mariachi is almost easy listening. But that’s what makes it so beautiful. It shows a band holding on to just the right amount of psychosis, and stirring in some gorgeous sounds to craft a record that works for longtime fans and newcomers alike.
The thing about a band like Sun City Girls, is that they’re so in your face off-the-wall that it’s endearing. Like most avant-garde groups, the taste is acquired. Only this time, the acquisition is much easier. Some of these sounds may initially make you cringe, but eventually you end up wanting just what they give you. Whether you like it or not, they shove it in your face until you crave the very thing you once feared. It’s nothing familiar, but by record’s end, it feels like you understand the place you just discovered pretty well. With a band so deep into their vast and varied career, it’s often intimidating and overwhelming to pick a starting point. After listening to the fearless beauty of Funeral Mariachi, this seems like the perfect place. Welcome to the party.