Surfer Blood on the Astrocoast
Stereotypes involving the carefree indulgences of a Californian summer have been circulating since surf-rock originated in the ’60s. Its inception was largely brought on by the development and popularization of the spring reverb, which at the time was said to mimic the sound of waves along one of these sunny beaches. Mickey Deora described surf music nicely by calling it “a syndrome — a cluster of symptoms, no single one of which is necessary or sufficient for the diagnosis.” The main symptoms include a limited instrumental arsenal, prominent use of either reverb or the guitar’s vibrato, and a short song length that appealed to the abundantly used metaphor of catching a wave. Similar to that accomplishment, the conventional surf-rock tracks were short, infectious, and brimming with components like reverb or picked staccatos. This action-audio analogy may sound pretentious by today’s independent standards, but back then it was simply incorporating a popular form of youthful expression into another popular form of youthful expression. Music and surfing were unveiled by these groups to have more in common than one would think.
Before even listening to them, it is readily apparent that Surfer Blood are a bit enamored with the style and period of surf music. Their name alone possesses an obvious reference, while expositions of personality on their MySpace site flash glimpses of ocean-themed tracks, references to fun things like weed and Condoleeza Rice, and a bunch of promo photos that are either in front of the ocean or expressing serene artistic emission. This might sound normal enough if you are from West Palm Beach like Surfer Blood, but many fans of indie-rock may find themselves weary of such beach-bound associations. The differences between contemporary indie-rock and surf-rock are prominent for the most part, and to immediately align Surfer Blood with The Beach Boys or Dick Dale would be a premature impulse that would unfortunately result in missing out on a great band for those not attracted whatsoever to these past groups. Surfer Blood do not abide by Deora’s aforementioned symptoms of surf-rock on a strict basis, but by possessing a similar type of musical ideology to their surf-rock predecessors Surfer Rock have crafted an ingenious debut that reaps from an old-fashioned sort of intensity that only those powerful two-minute surf-rock epics from the ’60s brought to the table.
Although they serve exemplary of an artist influenced by an ideology instead of a precise audible style, Surfer Blood’s own unique style is something that should delight fans of modern indie-rock. The charming upbeat pop of The Shins is certainly present, as are groups like The Explorers Club that cling on to ’60s pop and surf-rock through overlapping vocal harmonies, picked tremolos, and lushly serene orchestration. Surfer Blood are a bit more modernistic than a group like The Explorers Club though, evidenced strongly by the variation in guitar tones and levels of distortion in addition to the lead vocals of John Paul Pitts. Amiable and accessible, Pitts always maintains a gleeful and whimsical croon that simultaneously recalls the sparkle-and-spit of James Mercer and versatility of Brian Wilson by aligning his vocal melodies with corresponding guitars. Like in surf-rock and power-pop alike, guitars are the driving force throughout Surfer Blood’s debut album, Astrocoast. These are precisely the two influences at work most consistently too; surf-rock is abundant through its production techniques while the hooks and song structures themselves are more reflective of power-pop.
Apart from “Slow Jabroni” and “Anchorage”, Astrocoast consists of tracks following below the four-minute mark but still achieving incredible growth and innovation during that time, beckoning a similar feeling to that of instrumental surf-rock when it emerged in the early ’60s. It helps that accessible efforts like “Floating Vibes” takes any related stereotypes by the throat to turn it into a gem with precise revision, even if the track’s simplicity and imminent radio time means it is not as durably enjoyable as the rest of this fantastic album. These aforementioned surf-rock instrumentals are even recalled on Astrocoast to a slight degree, which finds its own reworking on “Neighbor Riffs”. Perhaps it resembles post-punk or art-rock due to its selected melodic and tonal choices, but the structure is inherently that of how surf-rock instrumentals were. An initial bass line kicks off the effort and does not subside for the entire duration, instead serving as the source of opportunity for a multitude of dexterous guitar progressions that benefit from aspects like tremolo, reverb, and staccato that undoubtedly resemble conceptual surf-rock. This is a quite a departure from most of the efforts on Astrocoast, but it sits excellently in the middle of Astrocoast as the bridge between indie-pop-minded sensibilities and voraciously raw surf-rock.
“Twin Peaks” is also nicely demonstrative of this medium, seeing a verse that alternates between aptly implemented chirps of guitar and bursts of distortion before going into an exotic infusion of woodwinds and guitars backed by festival-like ambiance. The fact that Surfer Blood are able to involve both of these conceptual ideas within mere seconds of one another is very impressive and it is easily one of Astrocoast‘s biggest strengths. “Fast Jabroni” recalls the fuzzy dance-punk of the late ’80s with its backing synths and excellent bridge, which uses cleverly engineered snippets of guitar arpeggios and strings to piece together a joyous chorus that exposes Pitts’ vocals in the best light possible. The guitar solo toward the end of the track brings us back to the days of quality ’90s power-pop, before the time Weezer transformed from indie-rock heroes to monetarily desperate cash cows taking advantage of their own status to release pathetic music and manipulate dedicated fans in the process. The prominent synths along with Pitts’ chirpy vocals would have allowed this to site well on Donnie Darko‘s soundtrack, where influences like Echo & the Bunnymen and The Church showcased the precursor to an effort like this in the background of rebellious and misdirected youth. There is a sort of concurrent wisdom and youthfulness found in Surfer Blood’s work and it serves as a rare factor that will undoubtedly separate them from the masses.
Other highlights on Astrocoast include “Harmonix”, easily the best psychedelic-geared effort on the album with its droning guitars and reverbed harmonics (as one would assume by the name), and “Take It Easy”, which brilliantly infuses fiddles and plucked staccatos to introduce an ingeniously calming chorus that summarizes this group’s feel-good vibes in more ways than one. There are so many sheer successes on Astrocoast that it is hard not to chalk it down as one of 2009’s best debuts. Their fusion of surf-rock and indie-rock has been attempted recently by groups like The Drums and Holiday Shores with some degree of success, but Surfer Blood appear to be doing it the best so far.
- Brian Wilson
- guitar arpeggio
- guitar progressions