Graded on a Curve: American Culture,
Pure American Gum

There’s an air of mystery surrounding American Culture; one certainty is that Pure American Gum is their debut album. The band describes its ten songs as “Music for Introverts,” and this might be true, but they also characterize a life-affirming byproduct of their namesake, specifically the sound of colluding youth banging out a batch of tunes openly celebrating relationships amorous and platonic, watching flicks, hopping in the car and tooling around, and the resonance of musical favorites. It’s out this week, in a vinyl edition limited to 300 copies, on Jigsaw Records.

Upon getting clued-in that a contemporary outfit had decided to sport the moniker American Culture, my initial thoughts hurdled back to the ‘80s and the names spied on Xeroxed flyers for all-ages hardcore matinees. Indeed, a gang wielding this handle would’ve fit perfectly onto one of those bills, the phrase scrawled in smaller print nearer to the bottom and with a tidy set assuredly covering most if not all of the following topics; conformity, religion, political nefariousness, organized sports, watching too much TV, and eating too much junk food.

Thankfully the circumstances here reveal a different reality easily discernible in the record’s title. Pure American Gum offers fresh-faced exuberance if not exactly innocence (the first cut details the sketchy borrowing of someone else’s motor vehicle), and the words to “I Like American Culture” underscore the point; rather than jingoistic, they draw comparisons to the everyday enthusiasms found in the annals of power pop as well as the impassioned ground-level grandeur of the Modern Lovers’ “Roadrunner.”

Furthermore, the sprinkling of lyrical references, to Coca-Cola, soda shops, and the imbibing of cherry crushes for only a few examples, enhance a connection to a bygone era, one that gradually ramped up post-WWII and rapidly declined with the Kennedy assassination and the escalating war in Vietnam. The global appreciation of US culture was at a rare peak, and for good reason; rock ‘n’ roll, jazz, automobiles, Hollywood, American Lit and comic books/strips were cherished worldwide.

Cultural exchange resulted of course, e.g. the Nouvelle Vague and the British Invasion, and more than a simple throwback, American Culture are exemplars of this tradition, absorbing self-professed influence (and they’re nothing if not boldly referential) from the Jesus and Mary Chain and Guided by Voices, the former a Brit act unimaginable without US rock precedent and the latter a pack of wily Ohioans that reshaped The Who and The Small Faces, two UK groups heavily impacted by American rock and R&B.

What’s known is that American Culture reside in the four corners vicinity of the desert west, the place where Arizona, Colorado, Utah, and New Mexico meet. The amount of members is undefined, though a female voice on one track implies mixed-gender makeup, this lack of profile deriving from a disinterest in being individually known; in its place they nurture a collective identity, and by extension nicely ask for no photos to be taken during their shows, these unsurprisingly small-scale affairs hosted in warehouses and spaces throughout the region.

Some may deride this objective as a ploy to gather attention via perceived indifference, but I’m not that cynical; instead, from inside our hyper-connected contempo landscape they’re openly striving to let the music speak for itself, and simultaneously fostering an uncluttered creative environment, gestures mingling especially well with the overall stance of Pure American Gum.

The opener immediately establishes healthy US-UK relations, “My Teeth are Sharp” mining an indie pop template slathered in loud guitar and echo-laden drums, though a homegrown melodic rock tendency does assert itself, emotive vocalizing surfacing just in time for a Bob Pollard-styled early fadeout; it culminates in a shade over 90 seconds.

American Culture’s figurative eggs don’t all reside in a solitary basket, however. In terms of length, “Actual Alien” stretches out and lands comfortably into the norms of a prospective single, along the way grabbing basically all of its riff-gusto from the home country. As late-‘70s power pop classique it’s a solid specimen, and the level of distortion is cognizant of punk without aping any mannerisms.

And speaking of riffs, “Social Anxiety” grapples with the spirit of the Velvet Underground by way of the brothers Reid. That means the amp noise is appreciable (as it blends with keyboard), and yet they also maintain a catchy sensibility in league with the prior cuts. On top of it all, the approach to the track’s titular standby brings young Jon Richman to mind.

Following is “I Like American Culture,” a fully-formed slice of mid-‘60s-channeling ‘70s-era pop-rock essentially providing the band with a theme song. Retaining the Richman aura, it additionally flaunts lyrics name-checking The Pixies, The Rolling Stones, The Flaming Lips, and Sonic Youth, and it flows into “We Wanna Go to the Movies,” a steady if not jaw-dropping guitar-focused number that should leave little doubt over the group’s general attitude and direction.

“Just Driving Around” begins side two in strong fashion, its cleanly-running power pop engine deftly combining guitar, organ, crisp rhythm, confident vocals, and another slow fadeout. It leads into “I Wanna Be Your Animal,” the aforementioned femme vox emerging to add further range to Pure American Gum’s equation.

The title suggests an endeavor possibly resembling the Stooges, but the well-spoken gal-tones are reminiscent of Kim Gordon if she grew up in early-‘80s England and joined a band managing to record a one-off 45 for Creation or Ron Johnson. Ending abruptly, it segues into “And that’s Enough for Me,” a brief cut with production moxie conjuring a mild, fleeting similarity to Rob Schneider.

American Culture dishes out melodies minus a hitch, but by introducing extra raucousness into the situation (a professed love of Dinosaur comes shining through) results in “About a Friend,” a late LP highlight and a difficult act to follow. In fact, closer “I Wasn’t Going To Fuck You Over Like That” doesn’t really attempt to top or even match it; after a minute elapses, the meaty mid-tempo begins a final GBY-esque diminishment.

It completes an album of severe brevity; I tend to believe the discipline of concision is a smart move (regarding straightforward pop-rock anyway) but 22 minutes does flirt with ending prematurely. On the other hand, American Culture succeeds in permeating their long-playing debut (they previously shared a split single with Boyracer) with ample personality and breadth.

And if a spare 90 minutes happens to materialize before a random appointment the entirety of this LP can be spun four times. Frankly, that’s some good math. Pure American Gum is energetically conceived, its imperfections minor, and it bodes well for American Culture’s future.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
B+

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