With Animal Races, Cool Ghouls find themselves
Often, a band’s biggest struggle is finding a way to differentiate itself from others in its respective musical sphere. For Cool Ghouls, who play a traditional form of psychedelic rock, cleaving a strong identity can – and has – proven difficult. Accusations of being derivative have lingered in the critical reception of their previous albums, with quiet suggestions that their retro feel is lazily imitative rather than a reverential nod to their forbears. Over the past few years, the psych-rock renaissance which surged through the bay area began a great migration south, towards Los Angeles, leaving Cool Ghouls in a position to stake out a definitive spot in San Francisco’s musical psyche. With their third album, Animal Races (via Empty Cellar Records), they not only establish themselves as worthy heirs to a beloved genre, but learn to embrace melancholy as a creative engine, resulting in a dynamic track list with sharp corners.
The album’s opening number, “Animal Races”, is a perfect microcosm of everything that follows. It wraps a message about the parasitic quality of the modern work-space inside energetic rhythms and wonderfully twangy guitar riffs, establishing a theme which invades nearly every recess of the album’s 11 songs: apathy is force to be raged against. Almost every songs deals with apathy to some degree, but the consistently vibrant instrumentation never succumbs to its degenerative pull. “Days”, for example, begins with the lines, “You know it’s rough, it’s so tough / When the morning through your window gives no reason to get up”. It’s a jangling ode to ennui with an energy that directly counterbalances the starkly overcast lyrics. The album’s first half is loaded with similar songs, creatively showcasing resilience through the spirit of the music rather than through lyrical attention.
In the album’s second half Cool Ghouls finally let loose, unleashing a series of songs which would sound at home thundering from a garage. “Brown Bag”, a riotous cheer to idle drinking, begins with the lines, “Sitting on some grass drinking beer (x2) / Beer is in the bottle, bottle in the bag”. A freewheeling solo soon pushes the track into a reverb laden stupor, and the line changes to, “Sitting on some beer drinking grass”. It’s lighthearted, but also feels like something deeper is being worked through. That energy is carried on through the next few tracks, culminating in “Spectator”, the album’s concluding number, a lovesick ballad that takes the form of a spirited paean. “Then I saw you with a drink in your hand”, a strained voice shouts, “With the company of a new friend / I became a spectator who lost the way of a lover”. It’s a song about heartache that refuses to let you feel it too.
In many ways, Animal Races represents a massive leap forward for a band which entered the music scene in a region over-saturated with similar acts. It combines rollicking instrumentation with lyrics that spill from the heart, exuding a rawness that could only be drawn from a personal space. In searching for ways to best express their worldview, Cool Ghouls have uncovered a formula for making songs that acknowledge life’s troubles, yet refuse to face them lying down. They sought to make an album to help them stick out from the crowd, and they delivered.