[2 November 2011]
PopMatters Music Editor
Surfer Blood provides a good case study of how fraught and precarious the existence of a hyped-up next big thing can be, though, of course, most any young band would rather be in such a position than not. Thanks to an exuberant debut that hardly anybody knew was coming until it arrived, the Florida quartet put itself in this situation by raising expectations that were never there to begin with before 2010’s Astro Coast. With more and more fans to satisfy and a major label deal to now live up to, Surfer Blood has a career trajectory that’s definitely on an upward tick, though it’s one that might just lead the foursome into a no-win damned-if-you-do-or-don’t predicament, if its latest effort is any indication. Tarot Classics finds the group either doomed to repeat previous work that was winning for its novelty and out-of-the-blue charms or trying to do what’s expected and move in a new, more quote-unquote mature direction that may not actually play so well to band’s strong suit.
Indeed, you could say Tarot Classics more or less expresses mixed feelings for taking the path Surfer Blood is on—releasing a four-song offering as a follow-up to a proper full-length comes across a lot like hedging a bet. In effect, the short set of songs is hardly an all-in proposition for Surfer Blood as the group tries out some new tricks without having to fully commit to them. Over the course of the four tracks on Tarot Classics, it’s as if you can almost hear Surfer Blood going through a transition from a band that made it on great instincts alone to one that figures that it needs to take its job more seriously, sacrificing some of the spontaneity and giddy energy that got it noticed for a more considered angle that has come with experience.
Trying to have it both ways on the new EP, Surfer Blood moves from songs that recall the better moments of Astro Coast to some new approaches that aren’t quite fleshed out at this point. On the one hand, “I’m Not Ready” could’ve come straight out of the Astro Coast sessions, the interlocking guitar play and singer J.P. Pitts’s endearingly all-over-the-map vocals radiating with the good vibes that made Surfer Blood’s earlier material so refreshing. Coming on like Weezer’s more earnest, less goofy little brothers, these wise guys get by both on witty repartee (“You’re talking down to me / But I can see that no one’s listening”) as well as an uncanny knack for creating a pastiche of nostalgic sounds, from the doo-woppy oldies to old-school alt-rock. “Miranda” offers a more streamlined, radio-friendly take on the Surfer Blood formula, a beefier, richer composition that could well mark the band’s arrival in the major leagues.
The thing is, however, the greater proficiency with creating bigger rock songs rounds off and smooths over the idiosyncrasies that made Surfer Blood stand out in the first place. So as bold and bright as “Miranda” might be, it still feels muted in tone when compared to the devil-may-care riff-happy power-pop of Astro Coast. And while the straight-ahead ‘90s alterna-guitars have enough drive and purpose to keep you from noticing it at first, there’s just not much of an edge to one-note rocker “Voyager Reprise”, whether it’s because all the quirks and hiccups that had given the band’s songs a unique sense of dynamism have been sanded down or due to its non-descript, fill-in-the-blanks relationship scenario, which plays itself out to flat lines like, “You’ve got nothing / Got nothing to hide / I’ve got a lot things that I keep down inside.” By the time you get to the murky final track “Drinking Problem”, Tarot Classics all but fades into the ether, opting for a head-scratching electro-tinged indie-pop number that strays far enough away from Surfer Blood’s core principles that it almost seems like the combo is trying too hard to do something different for the sake of, well, doing something different.
Growing pains and all, Tarot Classics does keep things interesting enough by working with and building on the qualities that helped Surfer Blood make a big splash with Astro Coast. In the end, though, being a compelling band that’s got a shot at going places can’t just be about first impressions, but, rather, what you do with them and where you go from there.