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As oblivious to trends as the Zen Lunatics may be, Garvin's back-to-basics retro ethic is shared by a number of other high-profile bands currently navigating the pop landscape, including Ward Dotson's Liquor Giants and Los Angeles-based retro group the Wondermints. Like their pop brethren, the Zen Lunatics freely plunder the 1960s British and American musical vocabulary, but unlike those groups, the Lunatics attempt to look past the intrinsic limitations of the three-minute pop song and extrapolate something greater. The band does this without losing sight of the essential truth that pop (or whatever name is bestowed upon it) has to remain fun and tuneful. The Lunatics' live shows are ample proof of their belief in this as they frequently delight (or torment) audiences with their own skewed but inspired takes on '70s cheese like Eddie Money's "Two Tickets to Paradise" or the "Theme From Laverne and Shirley."
As far as their original material goes, it's clear that Garvin and Hansen Orf's long-standing musical kinship and shared sense of humor thoroughly permeate their songwriting. Two of the band's signature numbers take a critical, albeit comical, look at the concept of celebrity in the current age of media saturation. On "Media Sensation," the group pokes fun at the instant celebrity that notorious behavior bestows upon mediocre actors.On another song, the group sings in mock tribute to Drew Barrymore.
The long-standing personal and professional relationships of the four men serve their music well. Napoli's skillful drumming and Padilla's melodic rhythm lines allow Garvin and Hansen Orf to explore a wide range of exquisite pop sounds. Catchy hooks and tasty melodies are the ultimate foundation of the Lunatics' sound.
The only disappointing aspect of the Zen Lunatics' work has been a woefully shabby discography that fails to accurately represent the vast songwriting output of either Garvin or Hansen Orf. "We've recorded lots of stuff, but none of it's come out sounding right," Garvin says. "Just nothing really worth putting out. The feeling and the whole recording process has been a pain. We've had more luck in the 10-by-12 room in my house than anywhere else." The band feels that that situation will be resolved soon with the release of its first fully realized album. Garvin adds that the band has recorded and mixed more than 40 songs for the album.
Generally regarded by their local peers as one of the most talented conglomerations of musicians currently working the Tempe scene, both groups' fortunes seem to be looking up at the same time. With stable lineups firmly in place and the dual CD releases imminent, the Lunatics and Cartwheels should be offering up their equally diverse and unique brands of music for a while. Somewhere in the afterworld, Buddy Holly is probably smiling.
The Cartwheels and the Zen Lunatics will be playing at Long Wong's in Tempe every Wednesday in January.
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