San Francisco psychedelic band the Cool Ghouls are making a swing through town this week. They’re at Union Pool on March 11 at 10 PM on a good doublebill with fuzztone monsters the Mystery Lights, who’re playing at 11. The next night, March 12 they’re at Cake Shop at 10 for two bucks less. Their excellent second album, A Swirling Fire Burning Through the Rye. is streaming at Bandcamp.
The Cool Ghouls’ sound is totally 60s, driven by twangy six- and twelve-string guitars with the reverb-heavy, fast-decaying tone that defined the pre-Marshall Stack era. The name is a misnomer; they’re not really ghoulish at all. What sets them apart from the legions of garage rock clones is how cleverly they mash up familiar riffs with original tunes. Sure, there’s plenty of Beatles, and Byrds, and a little Stones, and maybe even Van Morrison’s Them in their songs, yet they’re distinctive.
Driven by drummer Alex Fleshman’s steady, clustering syncopation, the album’s opening track, And It Grows contrasts guitarist Ryan Wong’s buzzing fuzztone riffage with Pat McDonald’s resonant jangle and biting folk-rock hooks. Wong’s steady repeaterbox guitar fuels a Link Wray sway on The Mile, building to a descendingly anthemic chorus that’s just as catchy. What A Dream I Had is another swaying midtempo number fueled by lingering fuzztone riffage and a heavy Beatles influence, right down to the soaring Ticket to Ride vocal harmonies and some deliciously sputtering Ringo drum riffs.
Orange Light is a jangly minor-key backbeat tune with a little Paint It Black hitched to the Byrds on the chorus. Insight – an original, not the Joy Division tune – sways along with its gorgeous layers of guitar, another crescendoing Beatlesque number capped off by Wong’s slinky George Harrison-esque solo. It morphs into an early Dead-style one-chord jam and then segues into the punchy anthem Get A Feelin’, which takes the Modern Lovers’ Roadrunner backward in time about five years.
Across the River sets Wong’s spiky lead over richly clanging rhythm and a tense beat, with a fuzztone solo straight out of the Jorma Kaukonen playbook, 1967. Reelin’ is another gorgeous backbeat number, glistening rainswept Rickenbacker chime contrasting with deeper washes of jangle and clang beneath it – it wouldn’t be out of place in the Plan 9 catalog, around 1985 or so. New Moon is the trippiest number here, a proto-powerpop tune bookending the jagged Venus in Furs clangfest at the center. The album winds up with Sweet Rain, Pat Thomas’ trebly bass cutting through the strutting folk-rock resonance. If you like your jangle and clang with a trippy edge, or you need catchy hooks for a really super spaceout, the Cool Ghouls are your band.