During the song “Hollywood Hills,” Alice Underground’s sings, “This is the dream/My name is on the Marquee.” Taken from The Cambria Sessions, it’s an upbeat track, complete with thumping, big band-worthy drumming. However, there’s a touch of melancholy running through it as well. When they sing, “Never die/Never get old,” you’re aware this is a pipe dream, not any realistic vision. The Hollywood of 2016 is just as shallow and heartbreaking as it was back during the jazz age referenced by much of Alice Underground’s music.
Although Alice Underground ‘sounds’ like music that hasn’t been ‘new’ for decades, the members of this Los Angeles outfit are quite contemporary. Group members have rubbed shoulders professionally with the guys in A Perfect Circle and Eagles of Death Metal, for example. And while they point to a few obvious influences, such as Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday, they also look up to such upstarts as David Bowie and Trent Reznor.
This album mixes together L.A.-centric originals with appropriate covers, like “Fly Me to The Moon” and “Dream A Little Dream.” The act features two fine vocalists, Tash Cox and Sasha Travis, and are surrounded by expert musicians that can switch from rollicking swing music of “Superman,” to the slower, more meditative “LA Is Burning,” a song featuring violin, which gives it a gypsy-in-the-big-modern-city feel. This latter track also sports a soulful saxophone solo.
Many artists attempt to break the mold by trying something entirely new, which is how genres like punk rock were born. However, it’s an equally valid pursuit to reach back to the past and put a modern spin on styles that were impacting at their genesis. Alice Underground succeeds by taking sonic elements — likely strange and exotic to the modern listener — and infuses these sounds with a modern, adventurous spirit. They also remind us that there existed oddball, wildly creative characters flying just under the radar in distant past eras, just as these special sorts roam our back allies today.
This is music that requires active listening. If you listen to it and only hear its stylistic throwback elements, you’re missing a big chunk of its appeal. But if you train your ears on how these songs tell many times dark modernist stories in seemingly innocent musical packages, you’ll be well on your way to ‘getting it.’