[5 April 2010]
PopMatters Music Editor
Surfer Blood’s Astro Coast is the first breakthrough indie debut of the new year, thanks to a perfect storm of forces in and out of the young band’s own control: Gaining buzz for its precocious revival of old-school indie rock after a tour-de-force showing at last fall’s CMJ Music Marathon, the Florida group has ridden the wave of blogosphere word-of-mouth to the top of its class, with glowing write-ups in Pitchfork and Stereogum whetting appetites for Astro Coast. With its first album coming less than a year into its existence, Surfer Blood has become a standard bearer of the wi-fi lo-fi era in short order.
Of course, the hype wouldn’t really mean much if the band didn’t also deliver the goods. The highest praise you can give an album like Astro Coast is that it sounds like something completely familiar that you haven’t heard before. Along with bands like Cymbals Eat Guitars and Real Estate, Surfer Blood has ushered in a 1990s revival before we even realized that Slanted and Enchanted and Wowee Zowee had become oldies records. Building on a time-honored formula of chiming guitars and obscurely affecting lyrics with a suburban ethos, Astro Coast brims over with ragged anthems ambitious not for experimenting in emerging trends, but for breathing new life into a form that had seemingly been perfected long ago.
What Surfer Blood didn’t inherit from its predecessors is a slacker attitude. These overachievers have cranked out a fully-fledged album less than a year since forming. Astro Coast bolts out of the gate with what are probably its two best songs, “Floating Vibes” and “Swim”, which announce the arrival of a band that seems reverent of obvious influences like Built to Spill and the Pixies, yet unintimidated by the lofty company it is aiming to keep. Making a strong first impression, the opener “Floating Vibes” is a standout, piling on huge, catchy guitar riffs and hooks, one on top of another. The much-touted single “Swim” follows up the leadoff track with the same sense that Surfer Blood is impatiently bold without seeming sloppy or green. Best described as controlled chaos, “Swim” is both a shambling pop song bursting at the seams and a tightly constructed composition: Beginning with a crash of echoing reverb and J.P. Pitts’s sung-shouted vocals, the band reins in the song with intricate call-and-response guitar play, only to pick up in intensity again at the end.
Perhaps what’s most impressive about Astro Coast as a complete album is Surfer Blood’s ability to maintain cohesion and consistency, while infusing in a bit of variety. Of course, not every idea is fully fleshed out on a first album: “Take It Easy” veers a step too much into Vampire Weekend territory and “Slow Jabroni” is the dreaded slow song where the album finally loses some momentum. But on the whole, there’s a nice pacing to Astro Coast that keeps it from burning out too brightly too quickly at the start, or letting the lulls go too long in the middle. In particular, “Fast Jabroni” speaks to the band’s intuitive sense of balance best, sounding like a beefed-up Shins ditty that reaches for fragile high notes without giving up the sinewy, driving guitars.
With an ethic to match its spot-on indie rock instincts, it’s safe to say that, even in the eye of the mythmaking storm, Surfer Blood hasn’t jumped the shark with its strong debut record. Indeed, the first lines from Astro Coast offer, in effect, a good statement of purpose for Surfer Blood:
Forget the second coming
I need you in the here and now
Instead of dreaming up a way to
Spread your name across the world somehow
Whether Pitts is calling the bluff of his soon-to-be ex-girlfriend in the context of the song or obliquely commenting on the hype surrounding his band, he might as well be getting out the message that a preternaturally mature and confident effort like Astro Coast makes loud and clear: Surfer Blood isn’t in it for a quick fix of fame and adulation, whether they’re the second coming or not.