Ty Segall and ‘Manipulator’: Why All the Fuss?

Photo by Denee Petracek

Photo by Denee Petracek

NPR hailed garage-rocker Ty Segall’s “Manipulator” as “the rock record record of the summer,” Pitchfork called it “his own personal promised land” and Marc Maron raved at length about the album on his “WTF” podcast. But does “Manipulator” live up to all that hype? Not really, no, though it has its moments.

“Manipulator”(Drag City) is the umpteenth release from Segall, a 27-year-old southern California musician for whom the description “prolific” is something of an understatement. He stays so busy that it’s tough to keep track of all his projects, which he does on his own, with friends like Mikal Cronin and as part of bands including the Epsilsons, the Traditional Fools and Fuzz. “Manipulator,” a solo record, is a 17-song collection of frenetic garage-rock that stretches to 56 minutes in length, Segall’s longest album so far.

Too long, in fact — the first eight songs are a wearying blur of churning guitar and nasal vocals. It’s not until the halfway point that there’s a truly memorable song, “The Connection Man,” which bolsters the cacophonous guitar with weird buzzy keyboards and an actual, honest-to-God melodic hook. The second half of the album is more generous with musical dynamics, varying the texture with a mix of acoustic and electric guitars on the pysch-folk tunes “The Hand” and “Don’t You Want to Know? (Sue),” laying down a twitchy beat under a dual-harmony riff on “Who’s Producing You?” and setting loose a massive, overheated guitar part on “The Crawler” that pushes sludge-rock to gut-churning new heights. Or depths.

Either way, much has been made of the fact that Segall spent 14 months working on “Manipulator,” which is an eternity for him. NPR charted the results in the reductive write-up accompanying its first-listen premiere last month, identifying the influence of T. Rex here, David Bowie there; maybe some Suede, probably a little Blur, even Oasis. And you can kind of hear it, though they never mention the most obvious touchstone of all: Jay Reatard.

For all Segall’s professed love of no-wave and Hawkwind records, he’s mostly working the same musical terrain as Reatard, only with more self-possession and less volatility. Like Segall, Reatard (born Jimmy Lee Lindsey Jr.) was a prodigious multi-instrumentalist who stood out most on guitar, played in a ton of bands and released a steady stream of music, starting when he was 15 and continuing until his death in 2010 from an accidental drug overdose. Even Segall’s gnashing garage-rock riffs and witchy singing voice seem indebted to Reatard, though Segall has yet to match the gift for melody that Reatard showed even on terse jams like “It’s Not a Substitute” or “Greed, Money, Useless Children,” grubby little tangles of noise that were held aloft by shout-along vocals you’d find yourself humming later.

On “Manipulator,” at least, Segall doesn’t reach that level. That’s not really a knock, either. He is obviously a talented musician with a restless creative mind, and he works hard. And just because Jay Reatard, among countless others, played garage-rock doesn’t mean that Segall shouldn’t. What it does mean is that Segall is roaming a well-trodden landscape, where musical ability and a work ethic are valuable assets, as far as they go, but they don’t account for that extra, indefinable spark that can make music transcendent. In that regard, “Manipulator” doesn’t dazzle consistently enough to be more than a half-decent album.

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