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Cool Ghouls: At George’s Zoo

Sometimes time travel can be fun–especially when you have the right guides. Like San Francisco-based quartet Cool Ghouls, who have spent the last 10 years crafting songs that evoke ‘60s and ‘70s surf rock and psychedelia. Members Alex Fleshman, Pat McDonald, Pat Thomas and Ryan Wong have doubled-down on this approach on their fourth and strongest release yet, At George’s Zoo, an album that’s catchy, inspired and surprisingly refreshing.

The album packs 15 songs in 41 minutes, and flies by. Yet to the band’s credit, no song feels unfinished or hurried. Opener “It’s Over” has the band’s members sing in chant-like harmonies before turning the song over to the swelling horn line of Danny Brown on sax and Andrew Stephens on trumpet. The band throws themselves into the unfettered energy of songs like “26th Street Blues” and “Smoke & Fire” while emulating the bright, fun vocals of The Four Seasons on “Surfboard.” Listeners never know what they’re getting next, and that’s okay. It’s this sense of discovery that elevates (At George’s Zoo) from being mere pastiche.

This makes all the more sense considering Cool Ghouls are showing a new side to themselves. “It’s the beginning of a new way,” they announce on “It’s Over.” At George’s Zoo sounds most similar to the hazy atmosphere of their 2014 album A Swirling Fire Through The Rye. Yet on that record, the band often let hook-driven guitar melodies guide their songs, time constraints be damned. Cool Ghouls quieted down on 2017’s Gord’s Horse, but the songwriting approach stayed the same. The closest we get to those albums is the single “Helpless Circumstance,” a straightforward surf rock track that involves a somewhat playful guitar solo. That the band doesn’t lean heavily on their old tricks is telling: they have plenty of more ideas to work with.

Top 40 songs from the ‘60s and ‘70s were often filled with instrumentations and arrangements that brought out their fullest potential in an efficient package; “Daydream Believer” by The Monkees may come to mind. At George’s Zoo is no different. The dramatic strings on the ballad “Land Song” (played by Dylan Edrich) give the song an added showmanship that would help it fit right in a mid-‘70s Top 40 playlist. The soaring southern rock-inspired “To You I’m Bound,” a song that has the narrator begging for a second chance from his lover, is punctuated by a ripping sax solo. Henry Baker’s barroom piano lines on the breather “The Way I Made You Cry” give the song a danceable edge despite it being a song about regret.

Nevertheless, most nostalgia-driven approaches aren’t without their blind spots, and this album is no exception. “Feel Like Getting High” is exactly what it sounds like, and in a time where recreational marijuana use is the law in 14 states and counting, it feels especially dated. “Surfboard” almost falls into the same trap–“Just hanging ten!” we hear someone shout; yep, we get it. Yet it’s saved by the unabashed guitar shredding and doo wop-tinged enthusiasm in their harmonies that makes it impossible not to enjoy.

Speaking of harmonies, never has Cool Ghouls sounded like they are having so much fun with their vocals. McDonald, Thomas and Wong share singing duties, and they’re what elevate “In Michoacan” from cookie-cutter surf-rock to a genuinely fun romper. They’re what tie up the emotional ingenuity of “The Way I Made You Cry,” which could have easily devolved into an over-the-top melodrama. On the introspective “Look in Your Mirror,” the band’s bouncing vocals playfully complement Baker’s hard-hitting keys.

Even though Cool Ghouls is celebrating a decade of activity this year, the songs on At George’s Zoo were recorded two years ago. Wong was moving to Denver, so there was a rush to record everything they’d written up to then — 27 songs in total. The resulting urgency and energy pulses throughout the album. They’re time travelers, sure, yet confident ones that have come into their own at a time when enthusiasm and fun is in short supply. Indeed, their timing couldn’t be more perfect.

Summary
They’re time travelers, sure, yet confident ones that have come into their own at a time when enthusiasm and fun is in short supply.
75 %
Catchy and Inspired
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