Nashville-based Heavy Cream’s third release Super Treatment contains plenty of evidence to justify the band’s importance in the vibrant garage band movement percolating in Music City and various scenes around the country. Benefitting from a change in personnel and extensive live performances since their 2010 release Danny, the quartet of garage punkers have developed into a veritable pile driver of sound. Guitarist Mimi Galbierz works the bottom three strings of her guitar in the same muscular way as Infinity Cat label mate Jake Orrall (JEFF the Brotherhood), Jessica McFarland’s anxious vocals compel the listener’s attention, drummer Tiffany Minton’s every-beat-counts drumming provides the pounding propulsion, and bassist Seth Sutton faithfully anchors it all.
Songs on Super Treatment tackle a variety of topics—living in a women’s prison in “Prison Shanks” and the ever-present “T.V. Preachers”—and also include a couple of pop/punk jewels in “Louise” and “I Know This.” Jealous anger is expressed rather than rage (“John Johnny”) and the group is at its best just being off-the-wall (“Tunnel Vision”). Like punk icons, The Ramones, Heavy Cream is comfortable being eccentric, taking their music, but not themselves, seriously. The main goal, as it is for garage rock in general, is to have fun.
The title refers to a beauty product for controlling frizzy hair. It could also refer to the highly processed approach taken by Bay Area garage rocker and producer Ty Segall, a strategy that is the album’s largest liability. Segall (Traditional Fools, etc.) saturates each of the tracks with as much sound as possible. McFarland’s vocals are sharply delayed, Galbierz’s guitar is heavily distorted and pushed up in the mix, practically squeezing Minton’s drums right out of the sonic picture. Sound compression in the studio was employed to keep the turntable stylus from jumping right out of the vinyl groove, but it also squashes all the dynamics in the process. Many 60′s bands, The Who for example, used plenty of compression to create great-sounding AM singles, though the bass and drums suffered as well. Here the effect comes across as simply heavy handed.
Garage rock’s lo-fi aesthetic allows for a wide range of approaches. The problem with Segall’s production is that it obscures Heavy Cream’s identity. A difference in regional sounds may figure in. Super Treatment was recorded by Segall in San Francisco and the album’s sound is more consistent with Segall’s work as an artist and the work of fellow Bay Area artists Thee Oh Sees. Nashville’s underground artists, generally speaking, are less affected (or effect-ed). Segall’s work with JEFF the Brotherhood in the past and his appearance at this year’s Freakin’ Weekend in Nashville (on the same bill as Heavy Cream) argue for his understanding that Music City isn’t San Francisco. Was he (ironically) attempting to create a stronger musical identity for the band? Was the band overly influenced by working with an artist/producer with lots of underground credibility? Listeners will need to be familiar with the group’s Danny or, even better, hear a live show, to know how Heavy Cream really sounds. During their own appearance at Freakin’ Weekend, at legendary venue The End, the band played a hard-hitting set to a roomful of energized fans. Jessica prowled the stage, her presence, as well as her voice, the center of attention. The End’s sound system was little more than basic; still the band’s spirit was clearly discernible.
Great live bands and their producers face a challenge in the studio: how to create a recorded sound that excites as much as a live show. The difficulty of the task is illustrated by the fact that, over a twenty-something year career, The Ramones only made two or three studio albums that equaled the power of their live recordings. Heavy Cream’s first full-length project with Jamin Orrall as producer took a straightforward approach, allowing decent audio space for the vocal and instruments while providing plenty of lo-fi funk. Segall’s approach on Super Treatment seems extreme in comparison. In an effort to re-create the excitement of the band in performance he’s relied on studio techniques. The idea might work in some situations, but doesn’t on Super Treatment. Heavy Cream might be trying something new for fun or in an effort to expand their audience. Regardless of the reason, Heavy Cream will need to find a better way to represent who they are on record.