Neo-garage-psychedelia from a Pittsburgh quintet weaned on “the punk explosions of ’66 and ’77,” the Cynics are long-running standouts in an overworked genre. They achieve a quintessential evocation of their ancestors’ glorious sound on Blue Train Station and Twelve Flights Üp. Gregg Kostelich’s guitars buzz with primal distortion as Michael Kastelic blurts out the lyrics in a sneery whine from somewhere deep within the sonic blur. Grungier than a seedy bar and more energetic than a class of sugared-up toddlers, the Cynics pack both albums (an evenhanded mix of strong originals and vintage obscurities) with surefooted atmosphere and excitement.
Blue Train Sessions and Sixteen Flights Up are remixed, expanded CD editions of the first two albums, with improved sound quality and added tracks. The latter includes entertaining snatches of pissed-off studio chat.
Rock’n’Roll unveils an altered lineup (a drummer change and no replacement for departed organist Beki Smith), an increased emphasis on original material and a slightly updated recording approach. More than ever, the songs are catchy and to-the-point, and the band performs them with an intensity that renders questions of revivalism irrelevant.
Learn to Lose, like albums by many bands that thrive in concert, fails to capture the Cynics’ energy. The tracks are frequently lifeless, too clean and rational. However, Kostelich does crank up the fuzz on “Right Here With You,” and Kastelic works himself into a frenzy on “Pressure.” “Haunted” comes closest to reaching their potential, but it never fully takes off. Although most of the songs are the group’s own, the disc does include a cover of the Nuggets-worthy “You Must Be a Witch” and the Troggs’ “I Want You.”
No Siesta Tonite open with calls to their sound man, a useless bit of patter designed to underscore that the album was recorded live, in Spain in 1990. First released there as Stranded in Madrid, it leans heavily, and faithfully, on material from Rock’n’Roll. The highlight is a particularly devilish cover of Merrilee Rush’s “Angel of the Morning.”
Armed with yet another rhythm section, the Cynics delve into more psychedelic realms on Get Our Way. Echoed backing vocals bring “Private Suicide” to a close. Theremin permeates “Lose Your Mind” and “13 O’Clock Daylight Savings Time.” “Beyond the Calico Wall/STP-00117” clocks in at a very un-garage-like nine-and-a-half minutes. “I’ll Wait” is more swirling than stomping. “Lose Your Mind” by the Seeds and “Don’t Shoot Me Down” by the Brogues are the heritage covers.
After an eight-year break, the Cynics returned with Living Is the Best Revenge, which opens with Kastelic’s righteous, raspy wail, frequently matched by Kostelich’s righteous guitar fuzz. Smith Hutchings is the new bass player, and Tom Hohn, who skipped Get Our Way, is back on drums. They ditch the psychedelic leanings, and producer Tim Kerr captures the energy missing from Learn to Lose. The title track is clearly the album’s centerpiece, an ode to the benefits of leaving behind one’s vices. A guest organist provides Hammond riffs that recall “Like a Rolling Stone,” a connection underscored when Kastelic adds harmonica to “Ballad of J.C. Holmes.” Covers include the 13th Floor Elevators’ “She Lives (In a Time of Her Own),” the Electric Prunes’ “You’ve Never Had it Better” and “Making Deals” (the only single by a group called the Satans and a clear precursor to “Sympathy for the Devil”). Living Is the Best Revenge is the Cynics’ tightest, most spirited effort since Rock’n’Roll.
Cynicism is a compilation.