"When you play music and you're a person on a stage, sometimes people can put you on a pedestal, and that can do a lot of things to your head. And... what if it actually exploded all over the walls during a show?" That's Ty Segall speaking to SF Weekly earlier this year about his 2011 song, "My Head Explodes". It's a fairly straightforward description of a song that isn't terribly complicated. Guy sings. People watch. Guy's head explodes. It's not hard to picture Segall's head exploding. He sings hard and loud and with the shrill fury of a castrated animal. And he does this a lot. Since quitting his band, Epsilons, less than four years ago, Segall has become arguably the most exciting and probably the most prolific member of San Francisco's evolving garage rock scene, which also includes Thee Oh Sees, the Fresh & Onlys, and Sic Alps(with whom Segall formerly played). Since going solo, he's released five albums of original material; two split LPs; a live album; a cassette-only compilation; eight 7"s; four split EPs; a collaborative album with Mikal Cronin; and appeared on four compilation albums. The man is prolific. Trying to keep up will, if not enough make your head explode, at least incite heavy migraines.
This year's Goodbye Bread, his first release for Drag City, is easily his best, the accumulation of learned songwriting tricks and a developing melodic sense, with an emphasis on sonic clarity and the influence of some august icons, notably John Lennon and Marc Bolan. (Oh yeah, Segall recorded a tribute EP to Bolan's T. Rex this year, too.) In the afterglow ofGoodbye's success, Memphis label Goner Records, Segall's former home, has compiled Singles 2007-2010, a sort of refresher course and unheard odds-and-ends set that serves as a tenacious, temporary portrait of Segall. There are hints everywhere at the songwriter Segall would become, but Singles is much more about the flail of youth than honoring tradition. In a few years, he's garnered comparisons to a wide swath of artists, from Nuggets-friendly English bands like the Troggs and the Pretty Things, to working-class American menace-peddlers like the Stooges and Ramones, to early recordings by the White Stripes (especially prevalent on this comp), down to the late Jay Reatard, a significant guidepost for Segall.
Singles is a stew mixing all of those ingredients and more. There are hints of Devo in the mechanized synth and drum tracks on early versions of "So Alone" and "The Drag". (Before forming his band, Segall often played all the instruments on his records, including drum machine.) Listen for ? and the Mysterians-like organ at the outset of "Skin", maybe the best song here. And in that voice, which vacillates from desperate howl to wallowing drone, a little Kurt Cobain, too. It's hard to know what's a relic and what's an advance here. Segall appears in love with surface imitation at times, while peeling the skin back at others. On the faux-British B-side "Fuzzy Cat", you can hear John Entwistle of the Who's gothic goof-off "Boris the Spider". The appearance of a cover of Chain Gang's coiled, minor punk masterpiece, "Son of Sam", feels like a cred grab, but an accomplished one. On "Caesar", which would later appear on 2010's Melted in more polished form, there's a little of the stomping acoustic rock that would become the underbelly of Goodbye Bread. Segall, like so many developing artists, seemed to be constantly toggling between ideas of himself.
Singles, while comprising 25 songs, is still less than one hour's worth of music-- this iteration of Segall was economical. Only now, as his ambition grows, so do the lengths of his songs. Just one here exceeds three minutes-- it's the demo version of "So Alone", which was eventually whittled down to less than two and a half minutes for Horn the Unicorn. After acclaim for the elliptical and sometimes very pretty Goodbye Bread, one might assume Segall's left the crash-and-bash of Singles 2007-2010 behind. But then, his new single, "Spiders", is all doom and drone-- a violent, glorious devolution-- clocking in just under three minutes. So much for obvious trajectories.