Drinking Flowers // Shadow Show EP
Recommended Track: Pop Underground
When I was a Junior in college in Portland someone asked me, “What’s Los Angeles like?” Without even thinking about it, I responded: “It’s whatever.” A friend of mine overhead me and immediately broke out laughing, assuming that I’d cracked some kind of very tongue-in-cheek joke about LA’s reputation and the casual attitude that typifies our city. I didn’t intend my comment to be a joke but maybe that’s what made it so funny in the first place. By “whatever” I suppose I meant not only could I take it or leave it but that LA tends to breed a kind of whatever-y attitude: a lot of surface and very little substance (or, to shake Shakespearean for a moment, a lot of matter and little art). I do not mean this pejoratively, necessarily. Rather, that’s just LA’s vibe. It’s whatever, you know? Best Coast was easy breezy, Ariel Pink is all round and round. There’s just something slightly disaffected about this city, like a ray of sunlight fractured through a haze of smog.
And that’s usually how I feel about most of the bands operating currently in LA. None of them is particularly bad and, out of context, some bands (like Drinking Flowers, our topic at hand) are even quite good and enjoyable. But context, unfortunately, is an inescapable curse within which any band (or artist in general, for that matter) must and will be considered. Echo Park’s Lolipop Records (much like its big brother Burger a few freeways south) definitely has a sound that is quintessentially and unavoidably LA: distant, slightly distorted vocals, driving if slightly bored-sounding drums, charmingly off-the-cuff harmonies, and production that sounds almost like an afterthought. It’s cliché at this point to even note, but most Burger and Lolipop bands sound like they got a copy of Nuggets in their early teens and still hold nothing to be more sacred.
That being said, I like Drinking Flowers’ latest EP, Shadow Show, much more than most of the largely-homogenous dancing-around-the-red fidelity pop that’s emerged within the last few years. The songs are good and the male/female harmonies are surprisingly affecting. “Pop Underground” is a particular standout; the song slides easily between a monotonous anti-chant of “the international pop underground,” a kind of snotty verse, and a more all-together-now part that almost got me dancing. Sonic touchstones are clear and bear little repeating: Spacemen 3 is an obvious one; the recently-reformed Ride also spring to mind as another band capable of making repetitive structure just a touch above somnambulatory.
I suppose my hesitation stems precisely from the anxiety of context and that, much like many other bands in their milieu, Drinking Flowers could easily be mistaken for any number of other bands currently trading in psych/drudge clichés that, while fun to get high to, do little in the way of saying anything particularly new. And that’s fine: sometimes you just want to make music to take drugs to or because it’s fun to get together with friends and have fun making something you all love. I do find it a little amusing that the aforementioned “Pop Underground” is about the Calvin Johnson-organized festival that took place in Olympia in 1991 as a way to celebrate and promote a slew of exciting and genre-defining bands who were very deliberately flying in the face of anything and everything like Fugazi, Bikini Kill, Bratmobile, and Kicking Giant (all bands whose independence and progressive insistence was not just sonic but fiercely ethical) when Drinking Flowers themselves sound about as far away from the Beat Happening frontman’s vision of underground pop as anything else I can imagine. And again: that’s fine.
But that’s about all it is: fine. This EP is good in that it isn’t bad. There isn’t anything wrong with it; the songs are well-structured, the playing is good, it sounds exactly like it should. As much as I wish I could hear it with fresh and naive ears, that’s impossible; and therein we return to the anxiety of context. Drinking Flowers are a good band and I would be the last to deny it—as are a lot of the other bands that flit in and out of the Lolipop/Burger scene (Black Sea and Cosmonauts come pummeling to mind immediately). But I’m still left with this nagging—I don’t know—sense of whatever. They’re a band in a scene and you could trade any of the songs on this EP out for another Lolipop song and, to be perfectly honest, I wouldn’t even notice. Maybe that’s not a bad thing and maybe I just don’t understand what it means to be a part of a scene. Maybe I don’t have enough context to hear what’s really going on, but I do not suspect that is the case. The band themselves don’t particularly seem to mind what kind of context they’re held in, going to far as to bill themselves as “post-something.” It might be a crafty jab at the almost frantic genre-pounding that dominates independent/alternative music these days, a way of giving the finger to the need to classify anything at all; but it also might be a mission statement of sorts: whatever.
All that being said, I’ll probably have “Pop Underground” stuck in my head for the next few days. And what more can you ask from a band, really?