Graded on a Curve:
The Ar-Kaics,
In This Time

Hailing from Richmond, VA, The Ar-Kaics are one of the few unambiguously garage-aligned outfits that can maintain a boldly retro slant, and for longer than the occasional 45. Short-players? Yeah, they got ‘em (many of them pricey these days), but with the release of In This Time, they now have two LPs, and fine ones at that. Along with instrumental proficiency in their chosen style, a big part of the band’s success derives from an almost…well, scholarly approach to “troglodyte teenbeat 60s-style punk,” which in turn means they fit right in on Daptone’s rock subsidiary Wick. The record’s out October 26 on standard black and limited beach glass color vinyl in a classy sleeve by Mingering Mike.

The reason why the tried-and-true introduction to ’60s garage remains compilations (e.g. Nuggets of course, but also the Pebbles and Back from the Grave series, etc.) is that hardly any of those bands could manage a solid, or even moderately flawed LP. Hell, many couldn’t even pull off a decent B-side. The same is true of the original ’50s uncut R&R convulsion (where non-comp full albums were almost unheard of) and to a lesser extent ’77 punk, where solid LPs were more common but still outnumbered by killer singles. There’s just something about the raw stuff that’s captured best by seven inches of wax.

Retro ’60s garage bands (as opposed to garage punk or garage-psych units) have caught a lot of flak over the years, and a fair amount from me. The reason is twofold. First, many of these acts (the first big ejac of them dating from the ’80s) were hardly more capable of knocking out quality songs than their influences, which resulted in a lot of covers as well as barely disguised rewrites. The results may not have been terrible, but they also weren’t anything to get into a lather about.

Second, these bands often devoted more time to dressing the part, looking like they just rolled off the set of Beyond the Valley of the Dolls or something, than working up a good set of tunes. And when the music was the focus, too often they regurgitated aspects of the sound that should’ve been left in the ’60s, like overzealous maraca-shaking vocalists with their “Yee-ahhh bay-bays,” for one example.

While the Ar-Kaics, namely Johnny Ward, Kevin Longendyke, Patty Conway, and Tim Abbondelo, can be aptly described as retro, they aren’t hindered by any of the above problems, which makes what they do pretty dang rare; they aren’t the only ones pulling it off (see labelmates The Mystery Lights), but the list is indeed a short one. And with rarity comes value.

Their self-titled 2013 LP (on the much missed Windian label) had 13 tracks, with this one holding an even dozen, and here they pull off a sweet trick early, as the emphatic pulse-stomp of opener “Don’t Go With Him” just rolls sans interruption into the more up-tempo near-jangler “Some People.” What they both share, along with sharp, period-derived but impressively fluid guitar and echo-laden vocals that avoid the overwrought, is a rhythmic sensibility that can be appropriately assessed as engagingly unfussy.

“No Vacancy” is a more driving rocker, but with some airy backing vocal counterpoint in the chorus, plus a sweet false ending that’s followed by a convincing lead singer freak-out. The press release mentions the Velvet Underground in connection to “She’s Obsessed With Herself,” which is certainly graspable, though it’s a bit like Lou, Moe, Sterling, and Doug (no John in this scenario) had formed not in NYC but in ’65 Detroit as they worked out their feelings about Mitch Ryder. In a word: swank.

In This Time’s consistently high level of songwriting is notably diverse, with “Sick ‘n’ Tired” a solid example of the sound heard on Crypt’s Back From the Grave volumes and the “punk” entries in Rhino’s Nuggets vinyl series, and with just the right amount of sneery attitude. Diverging from this template is “Cut Me Down,” which offers a mildly VU-like psych pulse, in part due to the decidedly Moe-like drums.

Complete with some tasty organ, the cut isn’t the slightest bit goofy or trite (as retro-garage with druggy elements can often be) but instead trots the bases in the ballpark of the Paisley Underground (bringing Spacemen 3 to mind, even). And speaking of sidestepping the hackneyed, “Distemper” is more straightforwardly garage-like, but sports lyrics that are colorful rather than clichéd (enhanced by the croaky edge of the vox) as it leads up to what will likely prove In This Time’s enduring gem.

“It’s Her Eyes” combines pitch-perfect vocals with guitar lines repeatedly hitting the sweet spot as the rhythm never falters. Bluntly, a significant portion of ’60s garage heroes never came up with a tune of amorous yearning this achingly sweet. From there, “What You Do” blends some Dylan-ish emoting with a load of amp fuzz, rattle-shake and a tinkle of keys, while “You Turn Me Bad” delivers a generous slice of textbook ’60s swagger.

After the highpoint of “It’s Her Eyes,” it can be argued that what follows is mainly just form-moves. That might be true, but they’re executed so well you’ll get no complaint from me. The title track extends this scenario, but with an impressive handle on dynamics and more fuzz outbursts. Finale “Long Way Down” again incorporates psych, but this time with pop both in the verses and more so in its “ba-da-ba-ba-ba” vocal hook, counterbalancing this accessibility with a little late-track sax squawk. And that’s nice.

All this praise (and the highpoint of “It’s Her Eyes”) aside, what The Ar-Kaics are up to is ultimately no big deal, though in getting up to it they transcend the retro tag and fit comfortably on Daptone’s rock subsidiary, as that’s exactly how the parent label handles soul-R&B-funk. Daptone says that if you dig the Back From the Grave comps, you’ll dig In This Time, and that’s true. But this is the byproduct of one band. And the band is now. And if not a big deal, it’s all pretty far from a small thing.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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