[10 June 2013]
Pythons is a fitting name for Surfer Blood’s sophomore record. Like the serpents with their coils, the 10 songs here may initially be overlooked, then before you know it, they’re wrapped around you without any sign of loosening their grip. The listener may underestimate their melodies for they are so immediate and do not hold anything back, but by the third or fourth time you’ve spun the disc, there’s no getting the hooks out of your head.
The West Palm Beach quartet’s sound is indebted to the approach of ‘50s and ‘60s pop, jangly and ostensibly light, with the breezy guitar tones of surf rock occasionally flaring up as well. Sing-along choruses and jaunty tempos are augmented by frayed guitar work served up on a bed of restrained discord. So catchy are the choruses, the verses often come across as mere prerequisites, the obligatory first step needed to build to the songs’ true gooey centers. Front man John Paul Pitts sings with a lyrical simplicity of romanticism and relationship dynamics—endearing at times, morose at others—and often delivered with a wry turn-of-phrase (“I know I can make a mess of things/When I wish on Saturn’s rings”). His distinctive voice, erudite and sincere, is among the group’s most noteworthy components. Though his vocals are predominantly clear and even, he frequently indulges in a Black Francis-style epiglottal yowling (repeatedly spitting the title of “I Was Wrong” with vitriol bubbling in his throat, for instance), which, in the context of the album as a whole, serves as a totem souvenir of a more punk aesthetic.
Speaking of Black Francis, comparisons to the Pixies in general are sure to abound. After all, Surfer Blood did recently tour with them and Pythons is produced by Pixies producer-of-choice Gil Norton. Their paradigm of relatively tempered verses detonating into crashing refrains and noisy solos is inherited from the Pixies, yet Surfer Blood are the far more pop-oriented of the two. As the record is their major label debut—on Warner Bros. no less—this pop fixation may be a form of playing it safe. On a less cynical note, it may be the group has a genuine affinity for the art of penning damn infectious tunes without needing to complicate matters with experimentation for quirkiness’s sake.
The album opens strong with what, on repeated listens, proves to be its best tune. The screeching guitar washes in “Demon Dance” give way to the first of many refrains rife with nonsensical yet vivid imagery: “Like a Pentecostal choir on Sunday/I can suck the venom out of your bones”. Toward the end, the band’s dichotomy is showcased with vocals whimsically cooing la-di-das and backing aaahhhs before Pitts launches into scabrous screaming with “Apologies, meet apologies/We could demon dance all night”. Lead single “Weird Shapes” sees the band take on a surging urgency, appropriate for Pitts’ declarations of self-actualization: “I’m younger today than yesterday/Heaven and hell can wait”. Elsewhere, on the commanding “Say Yes To Me”, frenetic guitar whirls bolster Pitts’ impassioned desire for a lover’s approval.
Pythons’ final three songs offer the work’s greatest diversity. “Needles and Pins” has the lazy sensation of drifting in a hammock tied between two palm trees, nearly Hawaiian in its melody. Pitts gives a relaxed vocal take, containing some of his most self-lacerating lyrics. And, it’s certainly no coincidence the song shares a title with one that helped establish the ‘60s pop archetype. Coming in on its heels is “Slow Six”, its lurching crawl of a rhythm pregnant with dread before ending with an avalanche of hammering drums and guitar distortion that itself abruptly segues into a swaying dual-guitar interplay. Closer “Prom Song” features a pots-and-pans percussion and sawing guitar tones that hearken to the ‘80s underground. “I just can’t be bothered/I don’t wanna know”, Pitts sings in a floating sigh, transcendent in a way as the instrumental tension builds before coming to a halt.
Despite their songs’ individual strengths, it is clear Surfer Blood are still finding their way on Pythons. Some of the songs are indistinguishable on first exposure, and the band doesn’t swerve all that much in their lanes to push any boundaries. As stated earlier, it’s hard to fault them for this too much, but at the same time, there isn’t a surplus of elements here separating them from their ever-growing number of peers. There is promise here, though, for Surfer Blood to continue growing, and as it stands, Pythons is a fine slice of punchy garage-pop, the kind to be blared from car stereos on sun-fueled, summer road trips that would coincide with the album’s June release.