The People’s Temple: “Sons of Stone”

The music of The People’s Temple exists solely in the garage– specifically, a 1960s garage– so I reckon it’s what we’d have to call a revivalist rock and roll record. I’ll say this about it, though: Sons of Stone is no museum piece. This young band from Lansing is studiously devoted to the sounds of a bygone era, not for the purpose of replicating it, but for using it as a set of building blocks; they’re mastering their craft here, and while the record is born of a certain youthful brashness and naivete, there are some moments of a vision that is already startlingly bold and unique. They’re building toward something big, and Sons of Stone is an unshakably sturdy foundation.

You can still see their scaffolding quite clearly, which is actually a big part of what makes this debut such a thrilling and special record. The People’s Temple sound like a band piledriving through their vinyl collection and picking and choosing the stuff they like; they’re in the process of synthesizing it, and what they have right now isn’t a totally original voice so much as an entire world of possibilities. In that sense they remind me a bit of a young Arctic Monkeys; actually, there are some strongly Arctic moments here, be it in the stoner haze that covers this album like a thick fog– recalling the druggy pull of the Humbug album– or in the way the singer cops a bit of Alex Turner’s snark from time to time. There are also heavy doses of the Stones, of course, both in the riffage and the swagger but, again, in the singer’s vocal affectations as well. There are strong hints of early Who records– before they went artsy, back when they were just a thundering R&B band. And there is the strongest remnant of 60s garage rock I’ve heard since Green Day decided to go Foxboro Hottubbing.

There is also quite a bit of echo and reverb, which is sure to be the album’s most divisive feature. I think it works, and I say that as someone who typically thinks such things don’t work well at all. But this band has the songs and the instincts to thrive in the sonic fog, as it were.  The production masks the particulars of the lyrics and even some of the instruments, giving the whole thing a sort of psychedelic swirl, but there are some booming rhythms and driving, energetic melodies that keep things moving even under all the haze. They have, rather impressively, mastered the sound of 60s garage on an almost molecular level; they know how to peg the atmospherics but also how to transcend mere formalism with brash energy and a kind of teenage mayhem.

I’ll say this for them, as well. No band interested in being a mere revivalist act would ever begin an album as they do here. The title song opens with a ringing guitar riff– one of the catchiest things I’ve heard this year– and then drums that sound like claps of thunder. It’s powerfully loud and almost anthemic, but it’s also rather slow, tempo-wise, to say nothing of strange in its psychedelic pull and, at five minutes, rather long for an album that generally relies on quick-and-easy. It’s an ambitious opening for such a young band, in other words, but the song has a dark, hypnotic undertow that pulls you in, and it’s maybe the best example here of them building something rather distinct from a set of spare parts.

That said, they also excel at banging out lighting-quick pop songs, packaged as garage bashing and thumping. “Axe Man” is an incredible little nugget of a song, an almost surf-sounding song that again recalls The Who at their most youthful and energetic. It’s an exhilaratingly ragged performance that sounds like it was tossed off in just minutes, yet it’s hard to believe a hook so massive could be the result of anything save for careful craft. “Where You Gonna Go,” meanwhile, takes the band’s most obviously Stonesy moments and transplants them into what I guess I’d call a garage ballad; it almost sounds like a soul song, actually, or at lest a very open-hearted pop song with a warm organ sound highlighting the backdrop. “Never Really (Saw Me Comin’ Round)” is sort of like it’s polar opposite, a creepy and menacing nocturnal groove that shows how affecting this band can be when they turn down the volume a bit.

The album ends with a dark and dramatic finale called “The Surf,” but the meat of this album– or at least, what strings together these more fully-formed songs– are the short, tossed-off rock and roll numbers that feel like they were born of in-studio jamming, held together by riffs and momentum more than a clear compositional focus. And that’s fine; they pull it off well, and the songs are addictive in their energy even if it takes a few spins to distinguish these tracks from one another. Plus, they know how to mix things up a bit by introducing some crackling tape hiss here, a jangling tambourine there– little details, to be sure, but amidst the mess and the murk they stand out and make the album feel like a true sensualist’s pleasure.

As for the lyrics, I’d mostly be guessing, quite honestly. I will say that the very name of this band comes from a cult and many of the snatches of lyrics I hear seem to work with the same kind of language. This isn’t another example of a rock band romanticizing the occult, however; if anything, I think they’re using that imagery to address themes of manipulation, deception, and control, perhaps in a more relational context. If that is indeed the case, we can call it another example of this exciting young band turning the past into something oddly their own.

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