Once upon a time, in the halcyon days of college rock and modern rock radio, it was possible and topical to talk about this strange band, Sonic Youth, and not let an interview go by without making some reference to the “weird tuning thing.” But as the “Seattle Sound” began to take over and rock continued to subdivide itself categorically, the influence of Sonic Youth’s “weird tuning thing” began to turn up in all sorts of places. It’s not just a cliché to say that Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon’s outfit was “a huge influence on our band.” It’s just fact.
As an act that seems to hang its musical underpinnings on Sonic Youth’s noise structures, The Search for Saturnalia is an excellent example of how these godfathers of indie rock have influenced both imitations and innovations on that original late ’80s sound. It’s impossible to listen to Four Letters without thinking at least once of Sonic Youth’s Daydream Nation.
However, the Austin-based The Search for Saturnalia is not just a copycat band in indie rock trappings. First of all, the sound is more melodic than Sonic Youth at their peak. Behind the strange tunings and fuzz and feedback are songs with a traditional rock structure that makes Four Letters both less challenging and more listenable than the sometime pretentious Sonic Youth. But even more than that, The Search for Saturnalia creates a more original and personal sound by drawing other sounds into their mesh. The melodies-amidst-noise evokes Husker Du (or just plain Bob Mould) at times. At other moments I hear the strains of shoegazer Britpop.
This last element is perhaps most prominent in the vocals. With the exception of the track “Mercury,” when guitarist Tina Lockwood steps up to the mic, the wispy and ethereal quality of her voice on “You Were” and “Thinking About It” reminds me dreamily of Lush’s Miki Berenyi (God, I miss Lush!). David Denosowicz sings the majority of the songs on the disc, and while he seems to have taken some inspiration from Thurston Moore’s vocal styles, he ultimately has a more pleasant voice. I’m sure the effect of Denosowicz’s voice coming through the music as if he’s singing in a tunnel is a deliberate act of production, and I have to credit Steven T. Hall and Jerry Tubb, who recorded, mixed, and mastered this disc, for knowing precisely how to layer the vocals into the guitars so that neither ever overpowers the other.
I could pick out some really great tracks on this album and compliment those, or I could speak about the disc as a whole. “Her Little Note” proves that guitar drenched rock, complete with distortion, can still allude to pop status. “Ice Cream Heartache,” with its dirge-like pacing, is probably the best Sonic Youth song they didn’t write, and displays an amazing amount of musicianship and control with guitar as an instrument for both notes and feedback. But maybe it’s the album as a whole that’s more important. Each of the musicians is more than capable and the conscientious use of percussion on this disc is refreshing for the fact that it isn’t the central feature of the music. Chris Boehk is an excellent drummer and Mark Boyd uses the bass to set a framework for the guitars, the subtle kind of playing lost in the current resurgence of headbanger rock.
It does my heart good to know that bands like this still exist. They may never achieve the success of their forerunners like Sonic Youth since the indie scene has resubmerged into underground territory and the once stalwart bastions of independent music, the college rock radio station, are disappearing thanks to governmental deregulation, but their existence means there is still hope. Bands like The Search for Saturnalia don’t have to be about simple nostalgia. Instead, they can shoulder the past and carry us into the future, one converted fan at a time. Pick this one up.