How to find a way through the arcane catalogue of the Sun City Girls? Last time I tried to count, there seemed to be around 60-odd releases, mostly rare as hen’s teeth, compounding the mythology of the band as among the most challenging and elusive of the past 20 or 30 years. Now, some three years after the death of Charles Gocher, there’s one last unexpected SCG album, and with characteristically perverse logic, expert word is that it may be their most accessible.
I certainly can’t pretend to be an expert, but “Funeral Mariachi” is without doubt the most approachable album I’ve personally heard from SCG. The playfulness is still there, but it comes with an almost elegaic quality that’s far from quirky. There’s little evidence, too, of that pranksterish imperative which often led the trio to attack what they deemed as political correctness and/or good taste, and which never really worked for me.
Posthumous work, of course, always comes freighted with a certain set of listener expectations – intimations of mortality and so on – which can be hard to avoid, even with such a wilfully unsentimental bunch as SCG. Consequently, “Funeral Mariachi”, from that title on down, seems to have a recurring atmosphere of twilit melancholy, as the second half of the album fills up with ominous twangs and piano-led nocturnes that privilege ambience over abrasion.
That said, this terrific album starts pretty abrasively, with “Ben’s Radio” appearing to be the trio’s organic reconstruction of one of the collage-like comps of oriental street pop on the affiliated Sublime Frequencies label. Among all the chatter, there’s a brief chant of “Rangda! Rangda!”, a sign of where Richard Bishop has subsequently headed (pretty frustrated, incidentally, that the next Bishop/Chasny/Corsano Rangda gig in London clashes with the Wooden Shjips/Howlin Rain double-header)
Initially, “Funeral Mariachi” seems to be a mellower reiteration of SCG’s super-intuitive, irreverent take on world musics, throwing in a little eastern, uncommonly graceful, exotica (“Black Orchid”); an eccentric trinket that evolves into a gorgeous acoustic piece reminiscent of the Sumatran devotional group Suarasama (“The Imam”); and a mighty stealthy desert blues (“This Is My Name”) that faintly resembles Tinariwen, allbeit punctuated by waves of east-facing psychedelia.
By the end of Side One, though, “Vine Street Piano” is introducing the dominant tone of “Funeral Mariachi”: piano-led, reflective and that most unexpected thing for an SCG record, tender. Side Two asserts this intensively, mixing up similar pieces with a couple of Morricone excursions: one genuine (“Come Maddalena”), one forged (“Blue West”). There’s also “Holy Ground”, a keening and reliably macabre incantation that seems indebted to Syd Barrett and, finally, the title track; not exactly a mariachi, but with a trumpet line (from David Carter) that transforms blasted territory into something not a million miles from “Sketches Of Spain”.
With their track record, many would’ve expected SCG’s send-off to Gocher to be full of enterprising vulgarity. How strange, finally, that “Funeral Mariachi” should be poignant, of all things?