Ever throw on a new record and swear you’ve heard several of the songs before? The sound is simply too warm, too analog, the songwriting too strong to have possibly been written in this era of cold production and vapid lyricism. They’ve got to be obscure covers, from a long forgotten Lou Reed bootleg, a rare 45 recorded by some Midwestern high school garage band back in 1965, an early Clash demo, or maybe a Stooges outtake. Maybe you heard it on Little Steven’s Underground Garage, or on some website dedicated to mid/late-century obscurity. In any case, the result is the same; it’s just too good to be new.
This is what happens upon first hearing The Sniff’s debut album, Barrio Element, except you haven’t heard them before; they’re all originals (minus a “hidden” take on a well known Chris Isaak hit). This is, quite possibly, the strongest new record this year, and easily the first in a long while that cuts directly to the heart of American music, hence the instant familiarity. Here is the very essence, the soul and the spirit of rock n roll, pure and unadulterated.
While the record is influenced in equal parts by garage, blues, rockabilly, new wave, and, yes, punk rock, an initial listen immediately places The Sniffs among the best proto-punk bands, lyrically as well as sonically. Yet, unlike the myriad of other bands claiming such influences, they are emphatically not a punk rock band. If anything, they are a neo-proto-punk band, excluded from the ranks of true proto-punk solely for temporal reasons. Musically, they are every bit as solid (and grimey). Producers Nick Curran (a legendary genre-hopping Austin guitarist who, sadly, passed away before the album’s completion) and Nico Leophante expertly coax a much larger and more raw sound that one might initially expect from a trio. “Gaston Ave.,” “Phone Booth” and “Waiting For The Law” are fleshed out by electric piano (courtesy of another Austin icon, Denny Freeman), an attribute that, on the surface, seems frivolous, yet in practice, lends a sonic texture both unexpected and surprisingly appropriate.
Beyond merely its sound, however, the band manages to capture an older style of songwriting, one focused on story rather than situation. While not necessarily implicitly stated, a narrative is usually implied, such as in “Ray Rey” and “Scraps of Town,” demanding the listener’s participation, sometimes without consent. It is a cinematic approach, in the vein of Lou Reed and Iggy Pop. There are no pines for lost loves or self-centered dwellings. The songs are unapologetic, honest and sneeringly apathetic, as any good punk or proto-punk track should be.
Rock n roll has always, at its core, been a music of rebellion, and Barrio Element is a battle cry against the current disgraceful state of music, as all good rock n roll album have been. Ironically, while past rebels sought to make something new, The Sniffs have gone the other way, and created something old (and I say that as the highest of complements), yet their message is the same. It’s worth your time to seek this record out; you may just find your new favorite band, and it will give you bragging rights to say ‘I listened to them when…’