This year’s hyper-sylized critical darlings? A Florida band (one strike against them) named Surfer Blood (two strikes), whose debut album is called Astro Coast (three strikes). Rather than evoking Graceland-era Paul Simon (*cough* Vampire Weekend *cough*), Surfer Blood has been compared to Dinosaur Jr. (I don’t see it), Built to Spill (still don’t see it) and Blue Album-era Weezer (kinda see it). Surfer Blood mostly reminds me of what I thought Wavves would sound like before I discovered that Wavves sounds like a steaming bucket of monkey shit. And a couple of their songs remind me of Vampire Weekend-era Vampire Weekend.
The song titles on Astro Coast are mostly appalling. I propose a new law: the song titles on your guitar rock record cannot contain the following words: “riffs,” “vibes,” and “harmonix.” Make that three more strikes (“Floating Vibes”, “Neighbour Riffs”, and “Harmonix”) against Surfer Blood.
Two out, bottom of the ninth, Surfer Blood. What have you got that’ll send this thing into extra innings?
Don’t get me wrong (or do): Astro Coast is not horrific. It might not even be bad. It’s got strong melodies (“Harmonix” sucks, though, mostly because it strongly – excessively, even – features, well, harmonics. For those of you who don’t play guitar, you play harmonics by resting your finger over the metal fret and plucking the string. It’s amusing the first few times you do it, but it’s really dumb to try to build a song around them. Unless you’re Sonic Youth) and catchy riffs (even the offensively titled “Floating Vibes” is pretty catchy). I dare say Astro Coast is mostly fun when it’s not making possibly ironic nods to actual surf rock (as on the too long at two minutes “Neighbour Riffs” which loses two points for featuring “Riffs” in the title and pretentious use of the British spelling of “neighbor”).
Vocalist John Paul Pitts certainly recalls Rivers Cuomo a bit (in a good way – my problem with Weezer has never been Cuomo’s voice. It’s the increasingly shitty and stupid songs he writes), especially on “Twin Peaks,” which is a simultaneous homage to David Lynch and not getting any. At least I think it is. Pitts also reminds me of Drummer’s Jon Finley, although Astro Coast doesn’t quite rise to the surprising excellence of last year’s Feel Good Together (which was only surprising because Drummer sounds like a joke: a band made up entirely of guys who play drums in other bands, including the Black Keys’ Patrick Carney, who is the bassist for Drummer). When his voice isn’t overly soaked in reverb (As a fan of My Morning Jacket, I know I run the risk of hypocrisy here. Let’s just say some guys sound good that way and some guys don’t. Jim James sounds good pretty much any old way and Pitts wears the reverb thing thin pretty quickly), Pitts sounds pretty good.
Though deserving of the praise it has received for guitary goodness (Pitts’s vocals haven’t gotten rave reviews in the press, but I really like his voice), Astro Coast feels pretty unsurprising and downright lightweight in terms of songcraft. I can appreciate writing instrumental parts first and then writing lyrics but, if you’re gonna have a singer, why not have something for him to say? Other than the loosely narrative “Twin Peaks,” most of what Pitts sings feels either a) like a joke (“Catholic Pagans”) or b) totally secondary to the mostly guitar-driven atmospherics of the songs (most of the other tunes). “Slow Jabroni” is especially torturous in this regard because it doesn’t even bring the thunder on guitar until its last two minutes (the song is six minutes long, so that’s a very bad thing indeed), which is when the vocal melody actually approaches beauty before the instruments freak out ever so slightly for the final thirty seconds. The song meanders more than it should and that’s actually an appropriate description of the album – there’s lots of good stuff buried underneath some mediocre-to-bad stuff and it makes for an infuriatingly uneven listen. If Surfer Blood trimmed some of the fat off of Astro Coast, it could be brilliant. And thin. I guess Astro Coast is an album in dire need of gastric bypass surgery.
And that’s what makes Astro Coast so frustrating: it’s really fucking good when Surfer Blood is disciplined enough to keep their shit together for a whole song. Although it’s dangerously over the six minute mark, “Anchorage” is a real highlight – it welds catchy, rhythmic riffs to what is probably Pitts’s best vocal performance of the album. It fades out right as it gets indulgent and manages to hold the listener’s attention for the entire song with out irritating at all. Perhaps “Anchorage” will be the jumping off point for the next Surfer Blood record and that record will be what I wanted Astro Coast to be. God help us if the first four minutes of “Slow Jabroni” are the blueprint for their second album.
Despite two six minute jams, Astro Coast is brief enough that its flaws don’t manage to totally undermine its finer qualities. But when I think of the other, better music I could be listening to – that Surfer Blood reminds me of (Sonic Youth, Drummer, early Weezer) and that has come out this year alongside Astro Coast (I’ve already mentioned a lot of these albums this week. They were made by the National and all those other bands I won’t shut up about but also by Laura Veirs and Frightened Rabbit and Titus Andronicus and Ted Leo, the latter two being especially relevant because they made focused, kickass guitar albums that had more going for them than just loud guitars) – I don’t get a great urge to revisit Astro Coast. If atmosphere and loud guitars do it for you, you’ll probably disagree with me and love Astro Coast until death do you part, but I’m already betrothed to better stuff. Call it high standards if you want – I call it good taste.