Mild High Club is a name that paints all sorts of pictures. The brainchild of the LA-based Alexander Brettin, the group is a loose collective of musicians from all over that come together in various incarnations to help interpret and recreate Brettin’s strange, smoky visions of Americana. He introduced us to the club with 2015’s Timeline, a lo-fi exploration of identity and isolation in the internet age. The release scored the group some serious kudos, though some drew criticism with the group, feeling that Timeline didn’t really reach the lofty artistic heights that Brettin’s musical peers (namely Mac DeMarco and Ariel Pink) achieve with their output. It’s easy to draw comparisons – Brettin did work with both and they do all make psychedelic pop, but to compare them is to miss the point; Mild High Club is not trying to be the next Ariel Pink. Never has that been more apparent than on Skiptracing, which serves as a complete evolution of everything Timeline presented both sonically and artistically, while also setting its own standard in establishing exactly who the Mild High Club is, and what they intend to do.
The album introduces itself like a psychedelic dream with the title track; sun-faded 70’s LA lounge muzak swirls in around Brettin’s aloof sing-song vocals making you feel like you just slipped into some unbelievably beautiful alternate universe. Like you just hit your head too hard in an episode of the Love Boat and this is your dream sequence. For the next half hour, Skiptracing takes you on a woozy, nostalgic trip through the history of pop music filtered through Brettin’s warped imagination, which ends as succinctly as it opens, leaving you just short of satiated and practically needing another spin through. The lyrics loosely follow the narrative of a “private investigator attempting to trace the steps of the sound and the spirit of American music “, and like all good noir characters from the pulps, the protagonist’s investigation eventually turns inward, reflecting on themes like lust, romance, loneliness, beauty and American life to “solve the mystery”.
The secret ingredient for Mild High Club (well, apart from the obvious “secret ingredient”) is in the production, and this feels like the biggest progression from Timeline. The songwriting is more intricate and intriguing than its predecessor, true, but the production quality on Skiptracing is absolutely immaculate. Take the dead-set gorgeous ‘Kokopeli‘ for example; a swelling, shimmering arrangement complete with vibraphone leads and one mean-ass guitar solo that sounds like it was lifted directly out of Ween’s The Mollusk album. If given the same production treatment that Timeline received, these songs would have sounded flat and kitschy in comparison but here, they sound lush and full, bold and sincere. With songs like ‘Homage‘ sounding like a long lost McCartney ditty, or the smooth MOR pop-jazz of ‘Tesselation‘ absolutely dripping with the influence of Aja-era Steely Dan, the melodies presented here are classic and familiar but bent just enough to feel alien. Then there are moments like ‘Chasing My Tail‘, an almost country arrangement drowned in walls of reverb that feels like it could collapse at any moment it’s so heavy with emotion, but never without a tongue planted firmly in cheek.
That’s another big strength for Mild High Club – the ability to be both sarcastic and heartfelt, jokey and honest all at once. It’s a skill only a handful have truly mastered over the years (Ween and Frank Zappa hold the trophies I think) but on Skiptracing, Mild High Club have really managed to walk that line expertly. The end result is an album that feels like a warm, familiar hug from a complete stranger disguised as a loved one who makes you laugh, cry and reflect before disappearing into thin air, leaving you feeling as foreign and strange as when they arrived but comforted all the same. If this is the kind of emotional rollercoaster that I can expect from a Mild High Club release, you can bet your sweet bippy that I’ll be back for another go-around every single time.
Skiptracing is out August 26 via Stones Throw