After the ambitious one-two punch of their twin 2009 releases, Ganglians and Monster Head Room, Ganglians spent nearly two years on the road and in the studio formulating a follow-up. The result: Still Living, a sprawling record that looks to build on their psych-folk sound with a little bit of everything. The results are mixed, but it’s hard to knock the bubbling enthusiasm that spreads over everything they record.
Whereas their previous releases tended towards longform folk jams, Still Living ratchets up the pop melodies to a considerable degree. Just because they hail from Sacramento doesn’t make them more predisposed to a “California sound,” but damned if they don’t nail that happy/sad dichotomy that the Beach Boys perfected so many summers ago. Songs like “Evil Weave” and “Jungle” are built to constantly propel the band’s harmonies forward; there’s hardly any space to catch a breath before the next melody comes crashing in. The sound itself is denser than on Ganglians’ past work, yet still within the confines of their lo-fi recording gear. “California Cousins” piles one guitar line on top of the other to the point of oversaturation, but the band is adept at keeping even ballads like these rolling along at a playful pace.
For all their melodic twists and vocal acrobatics, Ganglians still overreach more than a few times. “Sleep” wastes a strong, dynamic chorus with some noticeably cheesy keyboards and an acapella bridge that shows the limits of lead singer Ryan Grubbs’ nasally voice. Similarly, the brooding “Bradley” morphs one too many times, and the falsetto moans—attempting to give a ghostly song an even eerier feel—are more than a few shades flat. Then there’s the ‘80s doo-wop of “Things To Know,” which, given the interstitial chatting at the end, sounds like a demo of the dudes drunkenly impersonating Arthur Russell. These outlier impulses are certainly in line with the kitchen-sink mentality of Ganglians, but they nonetheless could have been left on the cutting room floor.
Despite the missteps, the band still emanates a certain cheekiness that’s rare these days, especially for a lot of oh-so-serious psych outfits. Even the album’s title is less a defeated sigh, but rather more of an affirmative grin. They’ve come a long way in just two years; who knows where they’ll end up next.