The Purrs and everyone rolling along in the Purrs machine gleefully tout their music as psychedelic rock — as if the label "psychedelic" trumped any other stylistic specification. These days, it feels like psychedelia were a button you could press on your Casio keyboard and out would flow an ethereal twang over a reverberating clamor of drums. What the Purrs represent is the grafting of a profound and human mental state onto a material product. Don’t get me wrong: The members of the Purrs can write a nice melody and are fairly adept composers. It simply seems like they are too conscious of the psychedelic as a mere genre, as their genre. In this sense, that facet of their music isn’t a manifestation of an internal drive or state of mind. It seems to stem from a sort of artifice.
To cut to the point, reverb-laden guitar and lyrics about drugs and space do not a psychedelic album make. Where devices like the extended jam or the radio-tuning sound effect were conceived to escape musical and metaphysical conventions, they have become codified in a vocabulary of drug rock.
On their sophomore release, The Chemistry that Keeps Us Together, the Purrs display a knowledge of these conventions and weave them into a jumbled machine, a pastiche of psychedelia, a flattening of musical history. "Go Cindy Go" sounds uncannily like Oklahoma power-poppers Starlight Mints with its crisp, ’60s gazing arpeggios, only to capsize into a Jesus and Mary Chain refrain for the rest of the song. Actually, the Purrs do best when they expose the marks of their surgery. "Go Cindy Go" turns out to be one of their more convincing pop songs, though it’s not so convincing as an artifact of an altered state of consciousness. Closer "Rainbow Afternoon" tips between ’60s or ’70s jam rock and straight up grunge — another more successful song. "You Don’t Look So Good" opens with a convincing Malkmus impersonation only to morph into a beautiful bit of Wrens-esque riffing, producing a distinctly ’90s brand of sorrow.
The album suffers where the influences are lost in blandness and reverb. Though opener "Drive" has a decent hook, the song smacks of Grey’s Anatomy montage music. "Frozen in Time" looks back at the ’60s through the myopic goggles of a Coldplay single, while the KEXP-hyped "She’s Got Chemicals" sounds like something Robert Pollard might hum on a public bus. Moreover, the song’s lyrics represent fairly well the general failure to gel two competing themes: drugs and relationships. Singer Jima (who uses his first name only) recalls, "I used to be a teenage drug taker/ Till I began to rust inside/ Still I can’t resist the occasional/ That’s exactly how she gets me high." Aside from the general stiltedness of those lines, it seems like Jima can’t decide whether he wants to sound arty or innocent, gritty or giddy. The result is a stifled cry, a failure to swing the sympathies.
There is a difference between a band cobbling together a distinct sound out of its influences and simply not committing to any sound in particular. The Purrs seem trapped in a middling realm between ’60s psychedelia, ’70s blues-folk, college rock, Britpop, and that generic indie sound appropriated by major-label trendsetters. I know that it doesn’t necessarily bear upon the band’s music, but just look at the album cover: a collage of old photos flattened into the neuter, doe-eyed visage of an indie star with his side-swept hair, modish suit and bony shoulders. It’s well crafted, but there’s nothing worth looking at beyond the casual glance.