The sun-bleached kerrang that flares up during the first few moments of Mermaids' debut album, Tropsicle, sets the scene for beach-party fun — the kind that glares off of every gorgeous, upper-register male harmony heard throughout the record. The song is called "Holiday," and it is almost opulent to a fault. But for every ray of sunshine that illuminates the album, there is just as much darkness. "There's a lot of depressing, personal shit going on in some of these songs," says singer, guitarist and founding Mermaid Matt McCalvin (formerly of Gringo Star).
When he sings, "Since you've been gone I can see right behind your lies, and those eyes are telling me that soon it will catch up with you," on "Make Believe," it illustrates the heart-wrenching emotional lows wrapped up in doo-wop and '60s rock 'n' roll highs. But it's a world apart from the ramshackle sound that put Atlanta on the indie map just a few years ago.
In Atlanta's post-Rob's House Records music scene, cut-and-dry garage punk has been strip-mined and left for dead. But there isn't much about the smooth dynamic between McCalvin and lead guitarist Josh Hughes that's cut-and-dry. Rather than retread tried-and-true riffage and sneer, Mermaids dusted off deeper grooves: Del Shannon's "Runaway," Frankie Lymon & the Teenagers' "Why Do Fools Fall in Love," and the orchestral melancholy of the Beach Boys' "Wouldn't It Be Nice" are all woven seamlessly into Tropsicle's nostalgia trip. Not only has that retro sound garnered Mermaids attention as the city's new agents of post-garage, it also landed them on a record label launched specifically to release Mermaids' music.
McCalvin and Hughes, along with Noah Adams (bass), Sam Wagstaff (keys) and Ryan Fetter (drums), defy the raw, noisy nature of the genre. "Is it a typical garage rock record? No," McCalvin says dryly. "Some of the songs have as many as 37 tracks to them, and we recorded it using Logic 8 — there's nothing lo-fi about it."
The album was recorded using legendary producer Phil Spector's "wall of sound" approach in the truest sense. "We recorded each part on its own, every guitar, every hand clap and every overdub, but it's all arranged to come across as being very simple," says Abby Go Go drummer Ian McDonald, who produced/engineered Tropsicle in his converted attic studio.
Songs such as "Frozen in Time," Vacation" and "Make Believe" unfold with a crisp sparkle — despite being steeped in layers of reverb — and sound strikingly familiar in an oldies-radio sense, but are still played with a punk velocity.
"Everybody's Acting Like an Animal" is the album's punk anthem, but there's no screaming on the song — or throughout the album, for that matter. The subtlety on display, matched by its quick pace, takes shape as a catchy and truly original spin on a heavily abused source of inspiration; and it has gained notice.
Tropsicle was released on LP and digitally in October by Pretty Ambitious Records, an offshoot of local roots rock label Lower 40 Records. "We met Mermaids when they played SMKA's Putting the A in Austin party at SXSW this year and instantly became fans," says Kerry Gibson, who runs Pretty Ambitious with Marcela Gonzalez. "When we came back we were going to their shows and listening to the tracks on MySpace on repeat. One day in June, Ryan asked me, 'What should we do next? I wish you guys could put out our record.' Two days later, we all sat down to hash out the details. Two days after that we were handing out 4-track promo CDs."
That promo CD led to a 7-inch featuring the songs "Holiday" b/w "Whirlpool," followed by the album. "Their music was very refreshing for Atlanta at the time," says Gibson.
Whether dwelling on darkness or sunshine-pop, Mermaids are a galvanizing bunch, and with Tropsicle, their not-so-typical take on garage, punk and doo-wop has an outlet to reach far beyond Atlanta.