Careful to tread only in the footprints left by the bigger Californian kids (BRMC, Dandy Warhols) as if scared of waking the monsters beneath the cracks in the paving flags, the band worked hard to drive themselves into a corner. Really, all of their energy seemed to go into simulating apathy, and their continuous drone of distortion became a convenient veil to drape over the nothing-muchness of the songs on their first two LPs.
Fortunately, Darker My Love are much cannier and more capable than past form may have suggested. Clearly realising it was time to make a change, the group appear to have enrolled in The Horrors’ school of reinvention for ‘Alive As You Are’. Rather than sidestepping awkwardly into new territory, the new album has seen them return to the ‘60s groups that presumably inspired them to begin with – The Velvet Underground, T. Rex, Floyd and co. – and use the same base components to build something fresh, turning their psychadelia shtick inside out.
In doing so they have also avoided the pitfalls of their older siblings. When BRMC released ‘Howl’ it felt a little like the Wizard of Oz had stepped out of his machine; stripping back their sound extended their shelf life but often left them sounding underwhelming and embarrassingly naked. Darker My Love, in contrast, have managed to escape their dead-end future of amped-up stoner dirges clutching something that genuinely captures the danger and possibility of ‘60s guitar music.
‘Backseat’ makes for an eyebrow-raising opener, tying the close harmonies of the Black Crowes to a shuffling country backbone before letting loose with the minor sevenths in its tantalisingly short refrain. ‘18th Street Shuffle’ is like early Bowie novelty hit ‘The Laughing Gnome’ made credible, assembled with stabs of atonal brass, a growling bass line and woozy keyboard noise that never quite connects with the beat.
Throughout, there’s a palpable sense of uncharted waters to be explored, of a time when the boundaries of rock ‘n’ roll were untested. It’s like listening to ‘The Piper at the Gates of Dawn’ for the first time in 1967, knowing the potential of its musical pioneers but not knowing just how badly the story ended.
It’s a prospect that feels wonderfully liberating in the present day, where pirate metal, anti-folk and every conceivable genre seem already to be covered. The fact that ‘Alive As You Are’ never quite reaches the far-out places it promises only makes it a more exciting listen, hinting at barely pursued possibilities stretching out in all directions.
That it captures this specific feeling is no accident either; this is a band who blog enthusiastically about how authentically analogue the vinyl release of their new record is, recorded “without any digitalia in the way”. They’re barely a spliff away from Lee Mavers’ demands of real “‘60s dust” on the mixing desk, but ironically end up sounding like a new revelation as a result. Whether you can buy into such romanticism is really a matter of personal taste, but those who can stomach the new age nostalgia have a decidedly modern age and – crucially – really very good album awaiting them.