The Murlocs Kick Up Dust on the Fantastic 'Calm Ya Farm'
Published May 17, 2023"'Scuse me sir, are you a saint or a hellraiser?" Murlocs vocalist Ambrose Kenny-Smith bluntly questions at the beginning of "Smithereens," which finds him struggling to unblur the line that separates good from evil. Whether such a difference even exists becomes increasingly questionable over the course of Calm Ya Farm, an album that feels like a drunk walk home through a small town full of crackpot conspiracy theorists, Bible-bashers and unapologetic wastrels.
A Murlocs country rock record has felt predestined for several years. While their first three albums mastered various flavours of frenetic and fuzzy '60s-inspired garage and blues rock, 2019's eclectic Manic Candid Episode saw the band take a slight left turn — arrangements became more lush, versatility flourished and a Western tinge crept into their sound. Their first piano-driven ballad "Comfort Zone" became a sonic staple for their next album, 2021's heartfelt Bittersweet Demons, followed by a sudden gear shift into last year's high-octane, raucous Rapscallion. The Murlocs have shown their skill at evolving naturally with little effort, and Calm Ya Farm sees the band putting it all together, upping the honky-tonk and honing their unique-yet-timeless sound more than ever.
Written with the vision of creating a quintessential blues-infused country rock album in the vein of Exile On Main Street, the Murlocs are far from genre revivalists — the jauntiness and debauchery of their inspirations are simply a springboard for a record uniquely their own. The slide guitar and handclaps on opener "Initiative" immediately takes us to the farm, as Kenny-Smith kicks himself for being the shiftless "stoner alcoholic / No end game" type that comes when mamas let their babies grow up to be cowboys. The rollicking melody and cheekily yeehaw-to-the-max arrangement adds an endearing quality — maybe it's alright to be "mad as a hatter / Officially off my rocker" as long as you can hang up the cowboy hat when it's time to get serious.
The country gets turned down a notch from here, but its swinging feel and rustic flourishes are tastefully incorporated in a way that never feels forced. Kenny-Smith's harmonica riffs sound rootsier than ever without the usual wall of effects, and guitarist Cal Shortal polishes off the Rapscallion grit for a twangier buzz. Added sleekness gives the songs a straightforward punch rather than a poppier glitz, which is evident on ode to revelry "Undone And Unashamed." Where the sonics sometimes lack grit, it's present in spades rhythmically as Kenny-Smith spits scenes of vagrants "strutting down the sidewalk / Hopscotch footpath with your wrist in a cast." The meandering bassline and swirling guitar keep things wobbling in a barely-straight line before the (literal) drunken saxophone solo, a welcome addition after its brief appearance on Rapscallion. Don't be fooled by the promise of reinvention — the chaos intrinsic to the Murlocs is still present.
With equal punch and a bit more blues, "Superstitious Insights" plays out as both a guidebook to the supernatural and the band's main influences, where a "black cat scratching on the thirteenth floor" nods both to Howlin' Wolf's "I Ain't Superstitious" and eccentric garage/psych pioneers the 13th Floor Elevators. Keyboardist Tim Karmouche's well-placed piano flourishes are a major highlight, and the swinging stomp backing threats of "fire and brimstone" recalls Link Wray's 1971 hit of the same name. But subtly stitching together decades of blues rock isn't pastiche here — it comes off sounding most like the Murlocs, showing their aptitude for adding to the conversation rather than simply echoing the past. As the song swirls into madness, it becomes clear that religious fanaticism and superstition are equally baseless forms of fear-mongering.
Religion seeps into blurred reality once again on "Russian Roulette," one of the most infectious songs on the record and easily their most psychedelic since 2014's "Loopholes." Grounded by Cook Craig's truly groovy bass and embellished with organ, tambourine and reversed guitar straight out of 1967, Kenny-Smith illustrates the Elysian fields of the afterlife with lush, lysergic radiance. It's like he's reassuring us that it might not be so bad if the conspiracy theorists of "Common Sense Civilian" and ornery geezers of "Centennial Perspective" run humanity straight into hellfire — if the world's burning, may as well get high off the smoke fumes.
Amidst the madness, the Murlocs indulge in their softer side as forcefully as they do on rowdier material, and they do so better than ever. Written by drummer Matt Blach, powerful slowburner "Smithereens" feels like a sibling to "Comfort Zone," sharing the same exasperated view of so-called humanity where all etiquette is tossed into the furnace. It appropriately explodes into chaotic warbly synths and crashing cymbals, dissolving into nothingness like a more relaxed version of the freakout in Count Five's "Psychotic Reaction." It's a reminder not to keep your feelings in a bottle, as if one was needed after the soulful and arresting love song "Queen Pinky," which sweeps in like a beacon of sequin-sparkling light. With a piano melody and pulsing bass that feels lifted straight from its ballroom setting, Kenny-Smith delivers possibly his strongest and most impassioned vocal performance yet. Maybe all it takes is one loving person to carry us through the chaos.
Instead of trying to fit within genre conventions, the Murlocs piece together what they've explored in the past and let their country undertones rise through the cracks on Calm Ya Farm. At their most collaborative, they've created their most cohesive yet multi-faceted album to date. Surprisingly upbeat closer "Aletophyte" ends it all on the question of how to move forward when life leaves us feeling like sun-bleached shrubs between cracks of concrete. If we all fall off the edges of our minds in some way or another, maybe it's best not to worry too much — just keep trying, because we're all doing the best we can. This may be their first rodeo, but the Murlocs know damn well what they're doing. (ATO Records)