I’ve gone through a few of these weird, semi-anxious bouts over the course of this year with the release of certain records. Records by bands who only had one other album to their name (and maybe some scattered singles and/or EPs), but it was one really good record, one really promising record. Basically: Yesterday’s buzz bands. The bands whose hype I totally bought into a year, year-and-a-half, two years ago, and who were now coming back to prove they weren’t just blog hits. I admit my anticipation was peculiar and bordered on neurotic obsessive fan territory, but the internet is a fickle mistress and if or when the backlash hits one of your bands — even if you like the record — it kinda stings and there are too many cautionary tales of the hype machine sending bands to the gallows after one false move. For me this happened specifically with Male Bonding and Cymbals Eat Guitars (who did put out quite good records; so there’s a point in the “things not worth getting worked up about” column); and now here comes Surfer Blood, who — to raise the stakes even higher — inked a deal with freaking Warner Bros. after the success of my beloved Astro Coast with their new EP Tarot Classics. If this thing busts, could you imagine the Hipster Runoff piece? (“Surfer Bros PANNED For Pandering To Mainstream Entry Lvl Alts. Are Alt Bros and Chill Vibes Irrelevant?” Something like that, but probably a lot snarkier.)
Again: You can put another notch in the “things really not worth getting worked up about” column. Tarot Classics is good, it’s solid. It’s also 15 minutes so there’s not a whole lot to go on here. I probably thought it was a bit better than it was the first few spins ’cause of the whole, well, see-above-paragraph stuff, but still. Soaked in reverb and shimmering with some standout six-string work, Astro Coast sounded like the perfect Brooklyn beach record, complete with an undercurrent of angst. Tarot Classics has much more of the latter. It’s a more exposed record — the reverb’s been dialed down several notches, the songs sound a bit more sparse, and perhaps most noticeable is the change in frontman JP Pitts’ vocals: Initially obscured in Astro Coast’s haze of effects, here Pitts’ voice comes across as throatier, but clearer — when he reaches for those high notes on “I’m Not Ready,” you can really hear him straining. He sounds like he does when the band plays live.
This raw look suits Pitts, especially as he ostensibly moves into grittier lyrics. Again, it was that dichotomy that made tracks like “Twin Peaks” stand out on Astro Coast, but Tarot Classics isn’t so much about sexual frustration as it is about the fragile friendships and the uncertainties that come as they start to deteriorate. Granted, “Miranda,” the EP’s sunniest, guitar-heavy cut that features some fine fret-work from Pitts, veers into Astro Coast territory, but that’s not necessarily a slight against it. The echoing mist of lead-off “I’m Not Ready” seems to denote the same, but with a welcoming slide up the bass the song pushes out the fog and marches steadily along with noodling guitars while Pitts’ both scolds (“So you’ve found some one new / to lap your shit up for a while”) and pleads (“Come on man, you know that’s not good for you”) — an honest duality presented with any souring friendship. Closer “Drinking Problem” echoes this sentiment, but Pitts tries to show a bit more conviction, repeating “At least I know who my friends are” — but he sounds too detached to really believe.
That said, none of those tracks strike a chord like “Swim” did (though few songs do) or even Astro Coast closer, “Catholic Pagans.” But there’s something wonderful going on in “Voyager Reprise.” Moving at the pace of an energetic shuffle the bouncing bass line grooves the steady drum beat, while more memorable guitar hooks sing on top of a low but booming piano, most of which drops out until its just those piano chords again, the drums, and bass and Pitts at his most introverted, “I can’t go out cause I’m sick with myself.” He continues like this — confused, solipsistic, dejected — while around him the band pops with some spot-on claps, instrumentation that seems to build and peak without actually building and peaking, and an out of nowhere synth and harmonica break that could not sound better. “No, I can’t say no / I won’t say no / I can’t say no / I can’t let go,” Pitts confesses at the end, and at once you believe him.
That tirade at the beginning, I think, was all really to say I guess I sometimes forget what a pleasure it is to watch bands mature, to watch them succeed and fail at the same time, often for the same reasons. It’s easy to get caught up in the myth of the sophomore slump, or just shift your attention to the next band coming up the ranks, but as a fan, the real joy comes from watching groups explore their limits and figure out how to shake those labels we all so easily stick to them when the first record (or, jeez, sometimes 7”) drops. Tarot Classics isn’t remarkable, but it reminds you just how good Surfer Blood are when it comes to songwriting, just how much fun it is to listen to this band, even if they’re getting a tad gloomier. It’s certainly enough to whet your appetite for that real, ahem, major label debut (!).
Plugging away since 1999, The National finally hit mainstream success with the release of their 2010 album High Violet. Of course, this entailed their first world tour, but in the new documentary Mistaken For Strangers, it’s only the backdrop for the relationship between lead singer Matt Berninger and his younger brother Tom, who had no idea that these short videos he was shooting would turn into a public document of their troubled, if still loving brotherhood.
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