The Florida band turn their backs on their surf-rock roots – but do they have the chops to pull off a college-rock homage?
It’s not easy imitating Pavement-era college rock. Plenty of bands – take, say, Yuck or Underground Railroad – have taken it on with admirable results. But to excel involves capturing the feeling of the late ’80s and early ’90s, rather than just imitating the music. Surfer Blood, after a hellish year that saw frontman John Paul Pitts accused of – but not charged for – domestic battery, are bouncing back and doing it right.
On ‘Pythons’, the Floridians have ditched the surf rock of 2010 debut ‘Astro Coast’ and, instead, plundered college rock for all it’s worth. That the outcome is as elegant as this is surprising for two reasons. Firstly, Surfer Blood always dealt in broad emotional strokes and basic songs, and were surf rock’s least subtle band. Secondly, if you follow up a surf rock album by adopting the next indie fashion then you’re trend-chasers, and usually trend-chasers are merchants of style over substance.
But the band’s finely nuanced and understated treatment of the era works on ‘Pythons’. Aided by Foo Fighters and Pixies producer Gil Norton, Surfer Blood conjure college rock’s feeling of youthful, nostalgic melancholy without using any of the sub-genre’s gimmicks, such as reverb and faded vocals. They temper sadness with sunny music, aware that this is the way to render it doubly poignant (Elliott Smith was the master of this). Listen to ‘Squeezing Blood’ and frontman Pitts’ bleak line “Wash away/The ashes from today” to see how one of ‘Pythons’ many vocal harmonies and power-pop choruses transform his desolation into a tattered hope. Add the pop nous carried over from their debut and you get highlight ‘Say Yes To Me’: breathless radio rock that’s consistent with ‘Pythons’’ air of whimsical sadness.
The sound and techniques employed here are uncannily reminiscent of the time Surfer Blood are exploring, when classic rock meant Guns N’ Roses, hair metal and power ballads. ‘I Was Wrong’ is Ray Davies put to college rock, crunchy guitar (which is everywhere, replacing the picked fretwork of their lighter debut), while ‘Blair Witch’ apes the ’60s-inspired grunge-lite of The Lemonheads. ‘Weird Shapes’, recalls alt.pop also-rans Semisonic, and features the line “I’m younger today than yesterday” – the marvellous mantra on which alt.rock was built. This is the world according to Generation X: those aimless 20-somethings resisting adulthood and the lives their boomer parents led. It’s no coincidence the primary influence on ‘Pythons’ is Guided By Voices, the Peter Pans of college rock. ‘Gravity’, with its Big Star melodies and guitar solos, is pure GBV: classic rock by innovative dreamers.
The record is not without the occasional lapse in ingenuity though. Take the one-note ‘Slow Six’, or ‘Needles And Pins’, which is just a formless waltz prone to random crescendos. But neither track detracts from what it is, essentially, an utterly charming album.