Why did the Beach Fossils cross the road? Who knows, but the band certainly do some rather dangerous jaywalking between two major trends in contemporary music. One is the dreamy, reverb-slathered take on all that gloomy indie and power-pop music made about 20 years ago (a trait they share with bands like Wild Nothing and Twin Shadow). The other is their having a seaside-related name (a trait they share with bands like Wavves, Best Coast, and Surfer Blood). In terms of musical content, these two trends don’t have too much in common. But in terms of their conceptual and aesthetic raison d’etre, and the audience that ends up listening to them, there are a number of similarities between them that largely revolve around a weirdly fashionable nostalgia overdose.
The early 21st century’s obsession with cultural nostalgia, pining for a past long gone, has been discussed time and time again. But things are a little different on What a Pleasure. Instead of being shot through with lame duck references to I Love Lucy, or The Monkees, or Cartoon All-Stars to the Rescue, Beach Fossils are very keen to draw attention to their own supposedly heartfelt sincerity.
Sure, What a Pleasure refuses to act a postmodern landfill. It’s not clad in Vegas-neon-junkyard chic, and there’s no square-eyed SNEScore here. Instead, it mournfully sifts through the remains of trash culture, making awkward little sculptures from the frazzled memories of our own fading youth. And it manages to rob all the right signifiers from all the right nostalgic sources to accomplish this. There are jangling guitars lifted from Murmur or Reckoning-era R.E.M (“What a Pleasure”, “Adversity”, “Distance”). There’s all the yearning swoon of the Cure’s Robert Smith minus gothery. There’s even the swollen gush of synths nabbed from Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark on “Out in the Way”, which, surprise surprise, features Wild Nothing.
What a Pleasure’s eight tracks here are all very pretty, very subtle, but there isn’t much here that’s particularly memorable. Transitory opener “Moments” shimmers in and out of focus in a moment, a fragment of memory that you can’t quite isolate. “What a Pleasure” and “Distance”, meanwhile, twinkle with all the mandatory romance of amateur, bedroom-bound astronomy.
However, in “Out in the Way”, there’s almost four whole minutes of dizzy bliss here. A faint, smeared keyboard line that slips in and out of Dustin Peyseur’s sighing voice swishes the whole song along; supporting the melody without making any epic demands to be noticed. It’s the sound of OMD’s “Souvenir” filtered through 25 years of saliva swapping obligation, another John Hughes collage that makes prom night look and sound like an allegorical folk ritual. Thus, it ends up sounding like a dreamy crossbreed of Spandau Ballet’s “True”, Passion Pit’s “Moth’s Wings”, and Wild Nothing’s own “ Drifter”. It’s pretty much irresistible.
But even “Out in the Way” can’t save What a Pleasure from itself. It’s a prime example of a climate of so-called musical innovation that reprocesses the past rather than letting it filter naturally into the music. What we end up with is a vicious fashion cycle that implants remembrances of things past that we’re probably all too young to recall in the first place. This ends up with the constant deferral of our musical-frame-of-reference, where the sense of nostalgia seems deliberated-over, cultivated. Now, that’s not to say that this process is completely cynical, or that What a Pleasure isn’t, well, pleasurable. The problem is that the nostalgia it evokes doesn’t seem to be a by-product of an aesthetic objective, but a goal in and of itself. Ultimately, this raises two pretty significant problems. First, it threatens to outlaw our pure experience of the music based on its own merit. Second, and perhaps more pertinently, it threatens to make the songs themselves meaningless.