Album Review: The Growlers – Chinese Fountain




  • digital
  • vinyl
  • cd

The Growlers are fundamentally anti-pop. For one, Brooks Nielsen’s listless, drunken drawl reflects the doldrums of modern life; it’s as if he’s a sage for the dirty, psychedelic, perpetually broke garage rock kids that like to keep things “ghetto.” It’s not for everyone. Nielsen’s lyrics are also obsessively self-referential, torn straight from the pages of his tequila-soaked journal of cactus doodles and creepy philosophy. He comes off like a dirty old man with shaggy hair, a sun-soaked mustache, and an oddly moralistic approach to lyricism that, when coupled with guitarist Matt Taylor, produces their bent sound: ghoulish surf rock, life-affirming melodies, and a conversational delivery that turns every Growlers show into a tripped-out sermon on mushrooms and real talk. It’s also how they connect with their audience. They’ve seemingly been on the road for the last 8 years, with five albums under their belts. While they’ve lost a few members along the way, Nielsen and Taylor have kept their cactus-farming brotherhood intact long enough to build a cult of followers that have been waiting for this moment, the time in which The Growlers finally swing for the fences.

After a fireworks accident left their studio in a pile of ash, The Growlers wrote their latest album, Chinese Fountain, at a friend’s house in Topanga Canyon. Once they began to record, they brought in a new producer and engineer to help keep them focused. The result isn’t some pre-programmed mix of dazzling studio techniques; The Growlers aren’t comfortable when things get too clean. But there are modifications to their sound. Like the Clash did on Sandinista!, the quintet takes more chances on this album, flirting with elements of reggae and spacey disco. The title track, for one, includes a funky arrangement that bridges the dichotomy of a modern digital hellhole with Nielsen’s desire to return to the old school — back when the internet wasn’t quite “bigger than Jesus and John Lennon.” It almost sounds like a sonic experiment the Doors would have tried had Morrison made it past L.A. Woman and into the disco era. The album’s closer, “Purgatory Drive”, sounds inspired by The Plugz’ punk en español score for 1984’s Repo Man. “Between work and his lowlife, he don’t want to be at home,” sings Nielsen before entering the lower register, “so he drinks and takes his time … under the fate of the road.” It sounds like an ode to the white suburban punk from the Repo Man himself, Otto Maddox, heading down the LA river during a lonely sunset drive, “though he’d rather be dead.”

The sun rises on Chinese Fountain with lead single “Good Advice”, which opens with what sounds like a vintage combo organ melody (matched by the bass), followed by a dynamic mix of clean and distorted guitars. The moment Nielsen enters the song, the giant wave of sound comes crashing down into a sludge of self-pity: “But I get so lonely, no one’s allowed to hold me.” It’s a miserable lyric, but it’s firmly rooted in the layer of fog The Growlers bring to every sunny melody. When Nielsen sings the chorus, “There’s nothing as depressing as good advice,” he’s asking to be left alone in a stew of his loneliness. It’s part of his sense of despondency, a feeling he’s obviously exploring on this track, but one that reflects the current state of his band as well: miserably content as a road-tripping, over-thinking, and hallucinating group of gypsies running away from the responsibilities of daily life. It’s like they’re constantly searching for happiness in some dystopian nightmare they can’t escape, Nielsen their Snake Plissken. “Dull Boy” builds on their frustration, moving from scene to scene, unable to find anything new anywhere — desperately “searching for a pulse in any given scene.” It’s the haunting realization that you can’t escape your hometown. It’s like a layer of fog following them around everywhere they go. It’s like Patti Smith quoting Rimbaud, in search of a “new scenery, new noise.”

When the sky clears, the sun glitters off the ocean water with “Going Gets Tough” and its airy, relaxed reggae riff. It’s like lying on a hammock, hanging between two palm trees and ripping some doobage as Nielsen tells the tale of the fire that took their studio: “No home since the fire … unsure of where I’m bound, so I sink another round.” It’s about the daily struggle of living on the road, with a bottle to help medicate the anxiety of money problems and potential homelessness. It’s an intensely personal account on the difference between the perception and the reality of being a member of the road-weary Growlers.

Ultimately, Chinese Fountain is a turning point. In a way, this is their most divisive record, the first time fans will have something to disagree over. “Chinese Fountain” and “Good Advice”, in particular, seem to show the band adventuring beyond the safety and simplicity of “beach goth” towards a more fully-developed sound. Still, The Growlers seem much more comfortable in a permanent state of limbo: selling out venues and hosting their own festival, all while remaining underground without the burden of fame. They’re not interested in cleaning up their act and becoming as big as a lo-fi rock band like the Strokes were over a decade ago (at least not yet). There’s still too much pain, too much rawness, too many demons for Nielsen to exercise before The Growlers can appeal to the masses.

Essential Tracks: “Chinese Fountain”, “Good Advice”, and “Going Gets Tough”