Surfer Blood - Pythons | Album Review | By Volume

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pythons

Surfer Blood

Pythons

“Wow, it’s been a long time since I’ve heard you listening to Weezer.”

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Author: on June 12, 2013
8.3
Sire
June 11, 2013

Surfer Blood. Astro Coast. “Swim”. The shark album cover. When a band’s artistic vision is wound this tightly around a single theme, it makes you wonder if you’re witnessing musical parody – you know, “Angy Inch” from Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Nagelbett from German techno nihilists Autobahn, or (the granddaddy of them all) This is Spinal Tap by you know who. But indie rockers Surfer Blood got up to some serious fun on 2010 debut Astro Coast; it was one of the year’s finer records and “Swim,” with its Asia-meets-Brian Wilson power chord theatrics, proved an appropriately buzz-worthy hit (though I personally preferred the ebullient “Floating Vibes” – yep, more aquatics). The nondescript, West Palm Beach foursome could have easily passed for a plaid-garbed, over-educated slacker contingent at a Florida strip mall were it not for their ability to conjure irrepressible pop hooks and Built to Spill-like fuzz tones that ached for the wide open spaces between the sea and sky.

It’s taken three long years for the band to arrive at the sinewy, 34 minutes of power pop found on follow-up LP Pythons. That period was filled with several remarkable highs (playing SXSW and ATP music festivals, opening for the Pixies, and releasing the excellent Tarot Classics EP) and one regrettable low (front man John Paul Pitts was arrested for domestic battery after a 2012 altercation with his girlfriend – charges were later dropped). Because of the incident, Pythons almost didn’t see the light of day, and irrespective of what you think of Pitts as a human being (he expresses regret over the situation, but fervently insists he’s innocent of the charges), that would have been a shame. Surfer Blood’s first release on major label Warner Bros. Records finds them sharpening their production values, building structural intricacies into their song craft without reducing its disarming simplicity, and writing some of the catchiest guitar-driven tracks on the market today.

Surfer Blood’s brand of reverb-laden, bright-eyed indie rock is so recognizable and referential that it’s nearly impossible to listen to Pythons without being reminded of its influences. On several occasions, Pitts busts out an excoriating wail that perfectly apes Pixies’ front man Frank Black (the bridge of “I Was Wrong” could have been stripped straight out of Doolittle), and his watery, shimmering guitar lines recall the playful revelry of a young Doug Marstch. All of the Blue Album comparisons Pythons is racking up are more than warranted – the songs employ the same surf rock riffs and motifs, “Demon Dance” shares the exact melody and vocal cadence as “The World Has Turned and Left Me Here,” and Pitts has one of those Rivers Cuomo-esque voices that drips with sunshine and teen angst – the quintessential emo timbre, minus the bitching. You know something’s up when a completely objective listener (say…your wife who listens to top 40 radio) strolls through the kitchen and randomly remarks “Wow, it’s been a long time since I’ve heard you listening to Weezer.”

But it’s the superb quality of its songs that push Pythons past mere mimicry. With “Gravity,” Surfer Blood reach into the universe’s great pool of songwriting hooks and pluck out a big plastic duck with a prize on the bottom. It’s one of those economical pop songs that flirts with perfection — think Lemonheads’ “Into Your Arms” and Weezer’s “Buddy Holly” – with a chorus as sweet and potent as a splash of syrup in your summer iced coffee. At under three minutes each, “Say Yes to Me” and “Blair Witch” are fleeting, pretty coastal sunsets, each propelled by the crunching barre chords and finished off with sublime Beach Boys-style awwws, oooohhs, and whoas. On paper, it feels almost silly to describe the impact of wordless vocal hooks like these; in practice, they feel weightless yet hit like velvet hammers. Taken as a whole, Pythons is one of those crisp, clean records that recalls the warm July days of youth, the air filled with the scents of sun tan lotion, bong hits, and the salty surf.

Yet the record’s smooth sonic surface belies a turbulent riptide lurking beneath – Pitts acknowledges “I write from a place of pain, longing, and frustration, that’s where I tend to come from.” To be clear, it’s not worth somehow aggrandizing Pitts’ domestic incident for even one second by suggesting that it’s the thing that lends more thematic weight to Pythons. Pitts points out that most of Pythons was penned before the episode even occurred. Truth is, Surfer Blood’s sunshine pop has always cast long shadows, from Pitts’ depressing admission “If I’d known all your ghosts/ I never would have come so far” on Astro Coast to his scathing reprimand “So you found someone new/ To lap up your shit for a while” on the Tarot Classics EP. Surfer Blood aren’t household names like their indie rock contemporaries Vampire Weekend (not yet anyway), but they practice the same trick that VW’s sound architect Rostam Batmanglij recently admitted to during an interview, that of “making songs that are in major keys but also secretly sad.” With Pythons, Surfer Blood just render their misery more poetically. Over bright, beautiful chords, Pitts sings “I can suck the venom out of your bones” and “No one else can lick their wounds/ The way I do/ When I’m with you” – two claims that are as indelible as they are shuddersome. It’s this uncomfortable blend of weirdness and masochism that gives Surfer Blood (much like predecessors Weezer and the Pixies) such delicious bite.

Hundreds, if not thousands, of bands have tried to mine these same hallowed influences without sounding stale, but few of them share Surfer Blood’s ear for melody and a knack for writing adroit, compact pop songs. The quartet avoid pretense by remaining true to not just the sound but the spirit of the original surf rock gestalt – a carefree celebration of American youth and freedom so universal it couldn’t possibly be contained to the shores. That Pitts’ life is anything but lighthearted these days only adds to the bittersweet tone of that party. On Pythons, Surfer Blood expertly balance pop’s earnestness with indie rock’s dry cynicism, an especially impressive feat considering how thin that line can be sometimes (see post-Green Album Weezer, who descended into the soulless schlock they had once been so adept at lampooning). Late night comedian Jimmy Kimmel’s recent prank when he duped unwitting Coachella festival goers into admitting they liked fictious bands like “Dr. Schlomo and the GI Clinic” and “The Obesity Epidemic” brilliantly points out the sycophancy and dumb hipsterism that’s rampant in indie music culture. “Surfer Blood” sounds like a name he could have easily slipped in between those two absurdities; ironic, considering the Florida foursome’s commitment to songwriting and craftsmanship is the epitome of everything that’s earnest and beloved in indie music. I’m glad he didn’t do it. This band – and these melodies – are no joke.

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