Over the past several years, bedroom-pop auteurs churning out hiss-y, homespun indie rock have been dime a dozen to say the least. It seems as if in this generation, one wakes up every morning to find their computer screen alit with another “of-the-moment” 18-25 year old kid with a sardonic attitude and a batch of tunes straight out of his momma's basement. Now, that is certainly a generalization; this I know. I know I am actively taking part in the Pitchfork-patented hyper-categorization and homogenization of modern music as we know it, pigeonholing artists into such small niches from which they can never escape.
This is not my intention with Street Gnar; the nom de plume of Case Mahan, a Brooklyn-via-Lexington, KY tunesmith whose newest collection, Study Wall, both conforms to and rejects many of the tent-poles which made many of his lo-fi pop cohorts successful in the first place. While many of his peers often value style over substance, Study Wall has killer slacker-pop tunes to back up his skater/stoner image.
The album begins with “Twenty-Two, Twenty-Two,” perhaps the album's finest song, and a perfect starting point for our discussion of the aesthetics of this release. Coming straight out of the gate with chiming guitars that wouldn't sound out of place on a Fifth Dimension-era Byrds tune (or one of R.E.M.'s charming, early recordings) and drums that sound like they were tracked in a tin can, we know we're in for an enjoyable ride that wont' rock the boat too much.
And rock it he doesn't: the following ten tracks are thoroughly enjoyable guitar pop tunes that are informed by the genre's multi-generational history. Pulling from the fertile musical soil of the past five decades, Mahan's studied approached to songwriting is perhaps his biggest asset. It's as if, holed away in his Kentucky basement, Mahan dutifully absorbed his parents' record collection while firmly keeping a finger on the pulse of the blogosphere, showing a particular affinity for the lo-fi guitar pop stylings of groups like Woods and The Fresh and Only's. Using the prerequisite pop auteur arsenal of guitars, bass, drum machines and synthesizers, Street Gnar has managed to craft an album that sounds decidedly of-the-moment while retaining essential elements of pop/rock classicism.
The production values are, predictably with this sort of release, where Study Wall ultimately falls short of greatness. The electronic drums throughout, especially on otherwise catchy as hell track “It Came In,” never quite mesh with the early GBV grit present in Mahan's songs, and simply come off as obligatory. Instead of using some of his recording limitations to his advantage, they ultimately reek of being just that, limitations. Generally, Mahan is at his best when the electronic textures are at their sparsest, such as on the aforementioned “Twenty Two, Twenty Two,” and the psych-rock rave-up “Let It Grow,” which sounds like King Tuff fronting the 13th Floor Elevators. The more textural side of Street Gnar is not always for naught though, as displayed on the lovely little ditty “Would You,” where Mahan makes use of a melodic synth flourish that truly makes the song. Well, that and the ripping guitar solo at the end.
Ultimately, Study Wall is an extremely enjoyable collection of pop tunes that just don't feel finished. The artificial elements present in the recordings never quite gel enough with the album's 60's/90's rock vibe, leaving the end product sounding more like a collection of demos than anything. Had Mahan taken a bit more time to hone the arrangements and put together a proper band, Study Wall could have had “classic” written all over it. Instead, the album feels like an underdeveloped first taste from an artist who will almost certainly grow into his own. I would keep an eye of this fella, y'all. Something tells me this won't be the last we hear of Street Gnar.
Study Wall was self-released by Mahan through Bandcamp on Feb. 1st. Check out the album player above to stream it in its entirety. You can catch Street Gnar live next Thursday, March 1st, at The Big Snow Buffalo Lodge in Bushwick, as part of Last Night's Two Night Images Residency. Other groups on the bill include Sore Eros & Hume. For more information check out the Facebook Event Page. Come on down, y'all.