Sun City Girls: Funeral Mariachi

Funeral Mariachi is being pitched as Sun City Girls' swan song, a development rendered even more noteworthy given that the group has issued in the vicinity of fifty albums during its twenty-seven-year tenure. The recording itself, however, is no tired flameout but instead a rich collection that suggests levels of imagination and energy one more associates with a band in its early days or its prime. The brothers Bishop—Alan and Richard on vocals, guitars, bass, and keyboards—are joined for a final studio go-round by the late Charles Gocher on drums and percussion (he died of cancer in 2007), only this time on a thirty-seven-minute outing that finds the band indulging briefly in some raucous moments before focusing on a straightforward ballad style that, ironically, makes this last installment the ideal entrance point for the listener new to the group. Those familiar with Sun City Girls won't be surprised to learn that, despite the material's accessible character, the songs touch on a number of different areas, including Arabic music and Morricone-styled western twang.

The album isn't averse to moments of tomfoolery, as the framing episodes of “Ben's Radio” attest when chanting voices ping-pong across the stereo field like so much dial surfing before the tune settles into an exercise in dusty electric guitar kerang. The opening song's rambunctious spirit carries over into “The Imam” when a blaring horn punctuates acoustic guitar picking and bells, only to have it supplanted by a vocal arrangement that pairs a low-pitched chant and a full-throated wail. Such moves hardly suggest a band on the verge of retiring. After the opening songs, the album's tone downshifts into a more relaxed mode. Any hint of freneticism disappears during the mellow folk ballad “This is My Name” and the sleepy “El Solo,” which alternates Alan's and guest Jessica Kenney's wordless vocal musings alongside the plinkety-plink of an old piano. The brooding sixth track, “Blue West,” merges wordless vocal harmonies and electric guitar, after which a vocal seemingly transported from Taking Tiger Mountain By Strategy darkens the otherwise dreamy meditation “Holy Ground.” Elsewhere, the group's Morricone affinity is rendered explicit in a haunting cover version of the composer's “Come Maddalena,” and the closing title track finds a braying trumpet declaiming alongside mournful vocal murmurs and emotive guitar figures. Perhaps the track that most insinuates itself into one's memory is the hypnotic “Black Orchid,” whose emphasis is on sinuous Arabic vocal melodies that immediately imprint themselves on memory, whereas the prettiest song would have to be “Vine Street Piano (Orchestral),” where Richard's lilting piano playing is augmented by a haunting vocal turn by Kenney.

Despite the band's formal end, one expects that Funeral Mariachi won't be the last time one hears from Sun City Girls, given the wealth of live recordings and studio leftovers that must be locked away in the Bishops' archives. But if it were to be the final statement by the group, this most friendly of the band's efforts would nevertheless stand as a perfectly credible exeunt.

December 2010