Despite being one of the mainstays of the noise/pop scene hanging over Los Angeles venue The Smell like so much smog, Chino, California’s Abe Vigoda has spent most of their day in the sun obscured by the shadows of much-lauded guitar/drums duo No Age. And for good reason. Heretofore, Abe Vigoda was a chimey, noisy pop band in a scene glutted with chimey, noisy pop bands, with their 2008 Skeleton LP garnering many well-deserved comparisons to Vampire Weekend in its fusion of trendy indie rock with Afrobeat and highlife rhythms. No Age, on the other hand, was louder, meaner, catchier, and just generally a whole lot better.
Note the was.
With the release of Abe Vigoda’s new Reviver EP, such comparisons are ancient history. Following a couple successful jaunts of road-doggery (on multiple continents), a Pitchfork.tv feature on “Don’t Look Down”, and a publicity groundswell as the independent music press licks up all things connected with The Smell, the boys of Abe Vigoda have not only grown into their musical shoes–but thousands across the internet are poised with webcams rolling to tape them trying them on for the first time. And if Reviver is any indication, these are going to be some really fucking awesome shoes.
From the first track–the excellent “Don’t Lie”–Abe Vigoda shows off its new kicks, tempering its insular, self-describedly “tropical punk” sound with influences from outside the greater Los Angeles area. “Don’t Lie” draws influence from the gloomy Right Coast debuts of Interpol and the Walkmen, but infuses those dour sounds with the bounding hyperactivity that drove 2008’s Skeleton LP; it’s a charging mass of echoed guitars, vocal harmony, and chugging basslines. As in, it hardly sounds like the same band. Further confusing the devoted Abe Vigoda fan, lead singer Michael Vidal seems to have gone through a kind of second pubescence: his voice, a whining Black Franciscan yelp but a few months ago, has dropped nearly a half-an-octave, and is messing about with it’s dad’s shaving kit. It’s a drastic change, and Vidal’s barrel-aged vocals cut a striking figure against the rest of Abe Vigoda’s clattering noise-pop hailstorm.
Afrobeat influences still haunt Reviver, but in a far more natural and comfortable manner; where Skeleton ham-handedly superimposed highlife onto noisy indie rock, Reviver finds the band synthesizing its global and local influences. On “House”, Vidal and co-guitarist Juan Velasquez finally earn all those comparisons to Fela Kuti’s infamous Egypt ’70; though too jagged to be called “funky,” their tandem guitar workouts rank with those of The Pop Group’s Y. The only real disappointment is the absence of ex-drummer Gerardo Guererro, whose tight 3-piece-plus-a-cowbell beatwork held Skeleton together. And while new skinsman Dane Chadwick’s four-on-the-floor beats definitely help propel Reviver, one can’t help but wonder how much better the EP would be with Guererro’s tropicalia chemistry.
With all this maturing and career growth crap, it’d seem on paper like Abe Vigoda just got back from having its claws pulled–but the fuzzy guitar feedback blanketing “Endless Sleeper” and the slap-echo noise duel that kicks off “The Reaper” see the band at its most experimental. But this is hardly noise for noise’s own sake: every squeal, chirp, hum and blip has its place in the dense arrangements that form the foundations for Reviver‘s superior songwriting. Where Skeleton, in its worst moments, descended into a shapeless din of guitars backed by a superfically exotic rhythm section, Reviver‘s songs, “The Reaper” especially, succeed in harnessing the raw immediacy and hearing damage of a basement punk show to a deepening understanding of songcraft and arrangement.
The album’s most radical departure is “Wild Heart”, which breaks all the rules–even the new ones. Just shy of six minutes, it’s nearly three times longer than most of the band’s noise-pop nuggets. The song’s only foray into sonic terror is Velasquez’s tooth-rattling guitar squall on the bridge–the rest is gentle arpeggios and throbbing bass that lock in Steve Reich-style with tiny sampled guitar parts and noises. There’s also the complete and utter lack of drums. An excellent vocal from Vidal, somewhat reminiscent of Stephin Merritt of the Magnetic Fields, drags the song even further outside of Abe Vigoda’s comfort zone–to the point where this seems like an entirely different band. Far from the weak point of the album, “Wild Heart” boasts a catchy melody and a promise that Abe Vigoda isn’t going to be another one of those bands that cooks up a signature sound and then lets its style do all the work–Abe Vigoda are ready to make songs, not just sounds.
Maybe Reviver is just a happy mistake–a collection of songs too unlike the rest of Skeleton to make the album, but too good to let rot in storage. But that’s doubtful. While Skeleton perfected the band’s early M.O., Vidal and Co. seem to have gotten the message that ”tropical punk” can only get them so far–and Reviver is a frantic dipping of toes into as many stylistic ponds as possible in a scramble for inspiration. But Reviver‘s is a beautiful scramble, that never resorts to copycatting or pastiche, and bears none of the telltale markings of a release churned out by the label to kill time before the next album. In fact, it’s the most exciting release of early 2009–and nothing gives quite the same feeling as a record by a band that’s itching to transcend its own scene. Give ’em six months, a little faith, and some gas money, and Abe Vigoda is gonna escape from L.A. faster than Kurt Russell. Except with both eyes.