The preppy pop sounds of Surfer Blood’s debut Astro Coast back in 2010, led by the hand to the dance by the monumentally addictive single ‘Swim’, were a sweet and cool refreshment. The endearing, fresh-faced Floridians seemed to be channelling The Beach Boys, bubblegum and the 50s-centric songwriting style of a pre-dickhead Rivers Cuomo in a time when such confections were a novelty.
Fun times indeed, and while that record had its dark, unusual lyrical aspects it was left to follow-up The Tarot EP to take a few musical risks via remix work from the likes of School of Seven Bells and Totally Sincere.
Returning here with their second full-length we find Surfer Blood as in love as they ever were with that beatpop, head-bobbing sunkissed rocknroll sound, but with singer John Paul Pitts now mining considerably more disturbing lyrical themes to create the vocal medicine which the musical spoonful of saccharine helps you swallow down.
Take ‘Weird Shapes’, in which abrasive new wave guitars give way to cute arpeggios and Pitts’ nasal waver cooing “The sun’s gonna come/Let it shine on someone else” and later the disarming coda “Secret charmer, pseudo harmer…squeamish voyeur, sick destroyer”. It’s a cool lil’ chugger with a twisted black heart.
Same goes for ‘Blair Witch’, where Tom Morgan’s chords chime over early R.E.M.-style interweaving vocals and hammering snare as Pitts croons “If I can’t taste and get my fill then no-one will” then “I need love” like a beach bum Morrissey in training. It’s a track with real pop chops, offsetting Pitts’ biting cynicism. This is a record of bitterness, of barely masked regret – in many ways perhaps viewable as their attempt to ‘do a Pinkerton’.
The savagery continues on the surreal, vaguely threatening ‘Needles & Pins’; thematically the most obtuse and challenging thing here (“10,000 angels in heaven above/ it sounds like the drop of a pin” being one of the more choice lines) – but the band are still surfing the same faux-50′s vibes as ever. Pleasant as these sounds are, when smoothed down even further by Gil Norton’s emphatically conservative production they do little more than carry the tunes along in fairly pedestrian fashion.
On big, addictive anthems like opener ‘Demon Dance’ and the stop-start of ‘Gravity’. it feels like these glowing gold chunks o’ pop have been the victims of a trade-off – exceedingly memorable melodies instead of vital, shambling musical fury. What, we can’t have both? Tracks that will get onside with you and stay in your head like the pleading balladry of ‘I Was Wrong’ or the luscious FM rock via Nik Heyward of ‘Squeezing Blood’ also fall foul of this lack of musical bite, yet remain memorable moments.
The best tune here, the Teenage Fanclub wail of ‘Slow Six’, is a song not of regret and bitterness but of revelling in one’s own sins. It contains perhaps the most well-realised line Pitts has written to date – “Now when I’m faced with temptation I move without hesitation / Wanting and acting are one fluid moment for me”. It also piles on the musical muscle, with the band allowed to finally let their instruments roar. Yet because of the timidity of the rest of the record, this now feels like a play of violence rather than a band really getting its musical fists bloody.
Closer ‘Prom Song’, anchored by it’s utterly miserable, faultlessly addictive chorus “I just can’t be bothered / I don’t wanna know…” brings this confusing, semi-satisfying piece to an end with a knowing nudge and a half-cocked grin.
The tunes are there, they’re tsunami big and surfer cool – the lyrics are there, bold, bleak and biting – but there’s been an oversight when it comes to stamping on the pedals, letting rip and allowing Surfer Blood to tear this material a new hole. It doesn’t happen often enough here, but you know that when it does in the future (fingers crossed) their hold will be as powerful as the beast from which this record takes its name.