Ty Segall is fairly open in interviews about the way he makes his music. For each of Segall’s albums he tries to have one rule that will set it apart from his other work – whether it be the mostly acoustic Sleeper (2013), the guitar exploration of last year’s Freedom’s Goblin or the guitar-less exploration of this year’s First Taste, Segall tries not to tread water as much as he can. As far as someone who’s been pretty heavily pigeonholed as a psych-garage rock guitarist, even despite his efforts to elude that moniker, he manages to make the most of his experimentation on his new album.
First Taste is unique in Ty Segall’s discography as it really doesn’t have any guitars on it. Now it does have plenty of instruments that sound like guitars; the heavier, dirgy sound of the koto and the acoustic bouzouki and mandolin to round out the breezier tracks. But Segall doesn’t stop there, he also brings in recorders, saxophone, electric omnichords, piano, Moog synthesizers and something called a mouth horn. Most of these instruments are weird enough that Segall spent the uncharacteristically long 17-month break between records just figuring them all out. For Segall, an artist who averages two albums a year, that break seemed suspect, a possible sign that his prolific creative streak was slowing down. But given the context this new album provides it makes sense. He was not crafting his magnum opus nor was he just taking his time on a by-the-numbers Ty Segall album. Instead, on First Taste he pushes his distinctive sound and persona as far as he can take it, at least sonically.
Since Segall first came on to the garage rock scene 11 years ago, he has released 11 proper solo albums in equal measure, not to mention his countless side projects and collaborations. The vast majority of those were recorded with some variation of the musicians featured on his new LP. Charles Moothart, Mikal Cronin, and Emmett Kelly make up Segall’s Freedom Band that he’s been touring with lately, but the record also has Ben Boye contributing clavinet and some vocal additions from Shannon Lay. With Segall still contributing the majority of the instruments on the album, having the band there to back him up helps to bind these songs together into more than just amateurish noodling – it gives these songs the backbone they need. Those backing musicians also, the same way they have on many other Segall albums, take his rule for the recording process and give it the legs it needs. Without any guitars, Segall is free to drum to each track in the left channel while Moothart drums in the right. It’s on tracks like “The Fall” where this recording trick is enough to make the more blasé tracks standout.
The biggest problem with First Taste is that so many of the songs do seem underdeveloped, at least when compared to the best songs here and especially when some of these songs are stacked with such unique instrumentation. Towards the end of lead-off track “Taste”, when the individual instruments build to a climactic conclusion, you wonder what took him so long. On the follow-up, the reverb heavy “Whatever” the track has a little more going for it being seemingly retrofit with duelling recorders and bouzoukis to go along with the panned drums. It’s a song that sounds great and manages to sell the album’s concept immediately. After a short drum interlude, the album takes another left turn, stripping away all the instruments in favour of an a cappella and harmony loaded ballad.
“Ice Plant” is a very pretty song and helps to break up the eccentricities of First Taste. After that, the album does have its share of filler – “I Worship the Dog”, and “When I Met My Parents – Part 1” and “When I Met My Parents – Part 3” are sketches of what could be really great Segall tracks but on this album tend to just be excuses for his experimenting, which in fairness makes these songs a lot better than they probably should be.
“I Sing Them” and “Radio” manage to be very familiar Ty Segall songs while sounding right at home on this album at the same time. Both have choruses that stick in your head so easily you almost forget about how weird they really are and both help to anchor this album firmly within his discography.
“The Arms” and closer “Lone Cowboy” are upbeat and radio-friendly mandolin-heavy tracks that are fully formed and beautifully succinct. Easily the best cuts here, they demonstrate what Segall is capable of once he knows what he is doing around an instrument.
It seems unfair to just write away First Taste as a concept album or a vanity project. In reality, it is another surprise from a musician who doesn’t like to do the same thing for very long, but more importantly it’s an album that lives up to its title. This is not the first album from a brand new Ty Segall, or even from a new band, but it is a statement of everything Segall can be sandwiched together in a surprisingly complimentary combination. Even when he opts for style over substance he leaves us with some of the most interesting music Segall has released thus far – and he’s released a lot of music.