Garcia Peoples has never had much interest in being normal, and One Step Behind benefits greatly from that distinctiveness.
Garcia Peoples gets points for being prolific. With One Step Behind, the sextet releases its third proper album in a year and a half. Even with its strong start, the band improves, hitting a peak here by combining their psych background with an array of other influences into a weird but seamless whole.
If the group’s recording speed feels reminiscent of a jazz musician’s studio schedule, it makes sense. The band brought in songwriter Tom Malach’s father Bob Malach, a saxophonist with a long career as a session musician. Forget the charm of the collaboration, Bob gets what the kids are doing, and his playing is essential to the mood of the 30-minute title track. While the song goes through phases of psychedelia,’60s rock and even Krautrock, it all grows from a dream foundation. Bob’s saxophone layers help write the dream, but his skill helps the track shift from that space into a more melodic and driving number.
While the playing remains as strong as ever, the compositional skills take precedence here. The band circles a minimalist pattern for seven minutes before the guitars decide to do something different with it. The transition makes perfect sense, and yet the slight change creates a tension. After a lengthy dream, the band knows how to slowly yet insistently come into a new psychic space. That guitar work itself turns out to be a liminal world between the sax dreams and the folk rock song at the center of the larger piece.
While the “song” provides the chronological center, it’s only one part of a broader organizing principle; there’s no sense that the track simply leads into and out of the vocal portion of the piece. The guitars decide to take back that earlier riff, now turned into something swirling and dangerous, with a lead attack to match. The band’s played with cosmic sensibilities from the start, but now they travel the whole way into them.
And then back. The musicians harness the groove into a hammered riff late in the number. For a few moments, we get a big stomping rock song, and then they rush back into the chaos.
“Heart and Soul” lets Garcia Peoples slow down for a while by setting the mood level to flute. For a band that records constantly, they’re surprisingly willing to take their time. This slow piano track fits into their aesthetic, but finds a new place to stick in it. Bassist Derek Spaldo sings, finding the sort of tenuous hold on himself that posits Rick Danko as a vocal ancestor. When he sings, “Now I understand if you won’t forgive me/ I can’t see beyond myself/ You will haunt me for my whole life/ I never got to say goodbye,” the sense of just holding it together comes through. Spaldo has questions, and he turns them to a lost love, to himself, to anyone who will listen. It’s a painful comedown after that trip of “One Step Behind.” Think of it as the piano outro to “Layla” if it actually worked, but it would be effective as a single.
A band doesn’t always exceed by expanding. No musician’s guide would suggest that, cruising early in its career, a band should bring in a parent and write a half-hour odyssey. Then follow it up with a new vocalist losing himself in hurt. Garcia Peoples has never had much interest in being normal, and One Step Behind benefits greatly from that distinctiveness.