They may not be girls, but this elusive trio does hail from Sun City, Arizona. (It’s a bit northwest of Phoenix.) From raga-rock to saxophone squawk, the fractious pieces on their hallucinatory debut album convene into coherent groupings beneath Alan Bishop’s avant-political rantings. From utterly riveting to impossibly muddled, the seventeen sketchy tracks include “Uncle Jim” (a ranting monologue with jazz guitar and sax); “My Painted Tomb” (a raga with toy piano), the impressive “Your Bible Set off My Smoke Alarm” and “Metaphors in a Mixmaster” (presents free-form guitar improvisation). Bewildering, aggravating and intriguing, Sun City Girls is an imposing bow.
From those (semi) humble beginnings, the Sun City Girls propelled itself, cartoon character style, against the furthest reaches of world music. Employing both real experience (members have spent a good deal of time in Southeast Asia, going so far as to gig on a cruise ship in Indonesia) and pharmaceutically aided astral projection, they’ve staked out a singular patch of polluted ozone, all the better to rain down interstellar transmissions on the earthbound multitudes. And like other extraterrestrial phenomena, their messages arrive in random sequence, often many years after they were sent.
By Grotto of Miracles, the trio had crept considerably closer to the edge, even as it left behind noise for noise’s sake (aside from the Arto Lindsay-damaged “Black Weather Shoes”). While Rick Bishop’s guitar playing is the band’s most user-friendly entrance point (particularly on airy pieces like the Wes Montgomery-styled “In a Lesbian Meadow”), it’s brother Alan, nominally the bass player, who proves the MVP, pitching in on a plethora of plundered ethnic instruments. With demented lyrical concepts and such offbeat accessories as antelope bells, chimes and temple blocks, Grotto of Miracles is an ethnic stew that shows enormous creative growth.
Midnight Cowboys From Ipanema, culled from a series of 1986 recordings and originally issued on cassette, is little more than an extended practical joke furthered by co-conspirator Gregg Turkington of Zip Code Rapists “fame.” The album sandwiches ten straight-but-intentionally incompetent covers of slough- bucket hits (like “Midnight at the Oasis” and Rush’s “Fly by Night”) between niblets of giddily abstruse performance art. Strictly a one-spin disc.)
Horse Cock Phepner revisits the wild-eyed skedaddling of the debut, upping the vulgarity level on the Tourette’s-touched “Nancy Reagan” and dosing the proceedings with prankster politicking reminiscent of the Yippie heyday (Tuli Kupferberg’s “C.I.A. Man” even gets a run-through with adapted lyrics). Unfortunately, too much of the album is given over to unsculpted blocks of found sound and purloined conversation samples stitched together with the enthusiastic schlockiness of a junior-high Howard Stern fan. “Esta Susan en Casa?” provides an alternative: a brief but convincing flash of rock salsa.
A long “official” recording break (during which the band actually recorded more than a dozen cassette albums) took the Girls back to the fringe, as evidenced by the ethnodelic jazz pirouetting of Torch of the Mystics. Titles like “Blue Mambo” and “Esoterica of Abyssinia” may reek of Sears catalogue exotica, but the band never comes across dilettantish. Percussionist Charles Gocher is particularly dexterous with pan-cultural touches, layering African drums beneath melodies gleaned from the Aegean (and vice versa), while Alan Bishop’s tarrying (and the conspiracy theories behind songs like “Radar 1941”) adds an extraterrestrial dimension.
Dawn of the Devi is even more capricious, telescoping its continent-hopping into discrete patches of utterly dizzying density. “The Kissy Sting” lopes from combative tribal drumming to olde-tyme waltz elegance before disintegrating into a noise-boy hoot. There are pieces that stay on an even keel throughout — “The Court Magicians of Agartha” puts an avant twist on kroncong (an Indonesian form of tango music) — but, for the most part, the album’s hazy insularity (perfectly captured in a sleeve photo that pictures the trio, back to its audience, lost in the throes of an improv high) doesn’t kowtow to stylistic neatniks. The two-record Live From Planet Boomerang is less successful, in large part due to the presence of two all-but-impenetrable side-long jams. Minus those, the album is considerably better; Rick Bishop picks out a lazy, mariachi-styled melody on “Amazon One,” while the entire ensemble (fleshed out with horns and keyboards) shines on a version of Duke Ellington’s “The Tap Graveyard” and the strongly Sun Ra-influenced “You Could Be Making History and We’re Already Forgetting You.”
The six pieces on Three Fake Female Orgasms are less concrete, more atmospheric. Although sound-collage building supersedes actual playing on tracks like “The Reflection of a Young Boy Eating From a Can of Dog Food on a Shiny Red X-Mas Ball,” the overall effect of the psychic pummel is enormous. Seemingly inspired by some combination of the Tube Bar Tapes and Church of the Subgenius, Napoleon & Josephine presents a few long stretches of Alan Bishop’s roving-reporter pedestrian harangues in you-are-there style. Instruments of Torture consists of four improvised pieces (“Nephthys” features some lovely viola playing by Brian Hageman of Thinking Fellers Union Local 282) drawing heavily on the ambience of the Mediterranean, particularly in the blues-tango “Nites of Malta.”
The bassist pushes his conspiracy theories to the fore from the beginning of Kaliflower, using the grating percussive backdrop of “X + Y = Fuck You” as a foundation for a jaw-dropping diaspora-rap that manages to tie together dozens of holocausts across the ages. He’s also the prime mover behind the mournful Gypsy drone of “The Venerable Uncle Tompa” and the purposefully ugly, Stooges-unplugged psychedelia of “Dead Chick in the River.” Bracing, to say the least. The closest the trio has come to “rock” in some time — which, truth be told, isn’t all that close — Valentines From Matahari is notable for electrifying the atmosphere (as well as the instruments) on tracks like “Sev Archer,” which boasts a Rick Bishop guitar melody that could pass for Dick Dale gone flamenco. The ethnic elements are still firmly in place, as evidenced by Gocher’s opulent percussive foray “Black Tent” and the muezzin-like wails that punctuate “Circus Haddam,” but such raw materials are most often used in building good old-fashioned walls of noise.
Jacks Creek sets the wayback machine for the mid-19th century, yielding songs like the banjo-and-spoons spookfest “Useless Stillborn.” The determinedly pernicious “Jazz Music of the Civil War” recombines martial snare drumming, a harmonica endlessly blowing “Dixie” and square-dance strings into a whole that makes Deliverance look like a picnic. The band’s penchant for fractured fairy tales is indulged on “Gurnam,” which couches ten minutes of UFO chatter in Gabby Hayes (not Gibby Haynes — ask your mom) cackling. So out it’s in.
Alan Bishop, who has since released a number of solo projects, served as part of the backing band for Eddy Detroit, a self-styled post-punk Rod McKuen who croons his wide-eyed psychobabble-cum-poetry over a lite-psych backing reminiscent of a Holiday Inn lounge band hipped-out for the summer of love.
Gocher died of cancer in Seattle on February 19, 2007. He was 54.