Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Album Review: Surfer Blood - "Pythons"

Surfer Blood began as a dorm room project housed by lead singer John Paul "JP" Pitts back in 2009; releasing their debut album, Astro Coast, in 2010 via Kanine Records to nothing less than rave reviews from some of music's most well acknowledged critics. The album put them in the ring with some of rock music's biggest names, drawing comparisons to bands including Pavement and The Pixies. Their brand of surf rock intertwined with punk edge instantly won my ears over, and Surfer Blood became one of my best kept secrets.

In 2011, the group released Tarot Classics, a four-song EP that was nearly flawless front-to-back. The band kept their edge with pop sentimentality and incredibly catchy songs like "I'm Not Ready" and "Miranda" while JP Pitts' voice glistened as a throwback gem, his baritone and vibrato touching chords rivaled by very few singers, yet it remains nostalgic enough that you feel like you've heard it before.

There have been tumultuous times within the group since their debut efforts, and these times are hard to ignore. Last fall, lead singer JP Pitts was charged with domestic abuse, and although he claims the charges were dropped, these charges will hover over the band for a fair amount of time to come, if not remaining there for good. It is up to every listener to make a decision whether or not to give the man and the band a second chance; to look the other way and take the music for what it's worth. It is of this writer's opinion that, for the time being, the guy and group could use a second chance. However, many people will understandably write this band off, much like Chris Brown way back when, and to be honest, that's a fairly understandable position to take as well. But let's focus on the music.

To avoid the treacherous cliché "sophomore slump," the group enlisted the help of Gil Norton, who produced The Pixies' classic Doolittle way back in 1989. Norton helps bring out the group's pop glory while staying true to their surf rock roots displayed so wonderfully in their previous works. There is a lot, (and I mean A LOT) of Doolittle interlaced in Pythons, and it helps explain some of the newer elements within Surfer Blood's music.

This is very beneficial to add to the group's dynamic, which some may think would be losing a step had the band released another Astro Coast. Surfer Blood tweaks some very small aspects to their sound, but the quartet stays strong within the tone they've locked themselves in to. Says frontman JP Pitts, "Making Pythons was a really natural process for us. We had all this energy from spending so much time on the road that once we all got in a room together these moments literally just flowed out of us."

For Pythons, Surfer Blood travelled to Chicago as a group to refine their songwriting skills, collaborating as a group much more than in the past, and the effort is clear. From first listen you can hear the tightness within pop punk-inspired tracks like "Demon Dance", "Gravity", "Blair Witch", and "Say Yes to Me" - all of which are very similar and rigid in their construction and delivery. "Gravity" might just be the tightest song the group has written in their career, despite it being one of the last tracks prepared for the album; the song features a very Blue Album-era Weezer sound to it, with well-ordered drums and guitars, layered with JP's spot-on vocals throughout, a chorus of harmonizing vocals, and an instrumental break that is highlighted by timely, sustained guitar distortion (which reappears multiple times on Pythons).

Norton brings out other approaches to musicianship from the group as well, including the screaming that can be heard sporadically throughout the album. Surfer Blood (specifically Pitts) touched on this element in their lead single from Astro Coast, "Swim" but have shied away from it since. This is another one of those instances where you can directly see the influence the group has taken from time spent with The Pixies. "I Was Wrong" and "Slow Six" can essentially be looked at as Surfer Blood's homage to Black Francis, Kim Deal and company.

Pythons glistens with nostalgic elements that bring me back to my giddy glory days of pop punk listening. The album's details touch on bands I used to listen to "back in the day" circa The Promise Ring, Smoking Popes, and of course the aforementioned Weezer and Pixies. "Say Yes To Me", the album's stand-out track is destined to be one of the summer's best songs and warrants repeated listens. The band also slows it down with the album's two of the final three tracks, performing in 3/4 (or 6/8) time signature for the first time on the whole album, straying away from the overall throwback surf pop feel of Pythons; and the results are still just as good as the rest of the album's efforts.

The main downfall of Pythons is its length. Ten tracks span just over 30 minutes, and with so many hooks and catch to the songs, you're basically left begging for more by the time the final song, Prom Song, finishes, as if the album is a season of your favorite television series, leaving you on the edge of your seat as it ends. It would have been nice to see a little more concept brought out through the album, especially since the band reportedly had written over 20 songs throughout the course of the last year and a half.

Overall, Pythons puts forth music that will make it easier to forget the band's miscues in the past. The group has grown musically, and their sophomore album is anything but a slump. With Pythons, Surfer Blood proves that they will no longer be that band I am able to keep up my sleeve.

Rating: 4.2/5

Check out the band's video for the first single off of Pythons, "Demon Dance" below.

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