[9 April 2012]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
Bad Weather California certainly scores points for self-awareness. The West Coast outfit named their ray-soaked second album—and first for Akron/Family’s new Family Tree label—Sunkissed. As it turns out, it’s an album that delivers a loose sort of song cycle focused around the sun. You know, that bright thing in the sky that we so often align with our thoughts of California. It all lines up rather nicely, mostly because they deliver a sound that absolutely can’t lurk in the shadows. It’s bright and warm and laid back—even when it gets worked up—and in their oddball way, Bad Weather California aligns itself with all the hazy SoCal pop that has come before them.
If they do this, though, they do it in a genuinely unique way. These pop tunes come to the West Coast via all kinds of different musical roads, and the band proves quite good at melding genres and styles of play to produce a record that surprises, that often shifts from one style to a completely different one from song to song. It’s the kind of match of energy, musical history, and unpredictability the Minutemen would admire. There’s an eccentric mix of modern waves of airy sound matched with distinct, sharp riffs from the past all over Sunkissed, making it an album that stays one step ahead of the listener sonically and dares us to keep up.
“I’ll Reach Out My Hands” is a strange mélange of sounds—from the atmospheric keys to the lean, palm-muted riffs—that recalls tropical music and classic rock as much as it aligns itself with current, gauzy musical trends. “Stand In My Sunshine” is all boozy, beach pop for late-summer blow-outs, but the guitars also sound strangely off-kilter, pulled out of tune by distortion and note bends, while the solo at the end is tense and frustrated. If the song asks you to, well, stand in sunshine, by the end you feel at least a bit raw from the experience.
Elsewhere, the band tries on different textures to fascinating, eccentric effect. “Big Yellow Ball” is rooted as much in juju and the sheen of ‘80s-era Miles Davis as it is power pop. The one-two punch of “Skate Or Try” and “Freaks and Geeks” deals in first jangling garage rock and then unruly punk. By the time we get to closer “You’re My Friend”, we get an echoed out take on Hall and Oates-esque soul pop. The vibe here is absolutely feel good, and Bad Weather California deal in the right tones and traditions to bring that forth, meshing them in a way that makes their brand that feels strange and fresh. If these guys are not the only ones dealing inn gauzy, bright pop these days, they are the only ones doing it in this way.
Sunkissed may be an innovative and unique album tonally and texturally, but in the end the songs themselves—that is to say, the words between these bizarre notes—often feel far more rote, delivering an anonymous kind of joy amidst the jagged pleasure of the music. “If you’re okay with yourself then just let loose”, they insist on “I Feel Like Dancing”, then wondering “Can we just let loose?”. Elsewhere, on the breezy “When You Smile”, the band may channel Laurel Canyon with their sound, but they only channel the kind of basic pop sentiments of love hinted at in the title. These songs are about soaking in the sun, having fun with friends, feeling music and letting it move you—and all that is well and good. The trouble is that they don’t seem to be expressing those ideas in their own words, with their own unique details.
In fact, in the end the band sometimes presents itself as a sort of good-time savior. “When you’re feeling all alone like there’s nobody there by your side,” starts “When You Smile”, “you can call me up, you can have me all night.” The same sort of idea runs through songs like “I Feel Like Dancing”, where Bad Weather California has it all worked out, they’ve found the secret, and they’re happy to help us catch up. The lyrical reliance on stock phrasing and feel-good imagery mixed with the ring-leader mentality makes the fun that is sung here feel forced, which is strange, because the joy of the music—the plainly wonderful sound of the instruments—feels effortless.