The post-punk revival may well be past its expiration point by now, but don’t tell that to Beach Fossils, whose second album Clash the Truth regards the stark and reverb-laden early ‘80s output of Factory Records and the Cure as still-fertile models of emulation. The date-stamped ghostly sparseness of the record is its most immediately distinguishing feature — and a potential handicap. From the moment a New Order-ified takeoff on the Sex Pistols’ “Pretty Vacant” riff (an intentional callback, judging from Captured Tracks’ press info) inaugurates the proceedings, Beach Fossils are a little too accurate in their replication of the feel and tone of 30-year-old records, threatening to mark project mastermind Dustin Payseur and drummer Tommy Davidson out as mere paint-by-numbers copycats.
Not that Beach Fossils have ever denied having one foot planted firmly in the past before. And in fairness, there’s no band one can knee-jerk castigate Beach Fossils as a blatant derivative of (as people typically do with Interpol and Joy Division, for instance). Its past efforts habitually boiled down various ‘80s trends — chiefly gauzy British dream pop and the skeletal jangle of early R.E.M. — into a sort of fantasy summer soundtrack for a decade its music could not have actually existed in. Though their sensibility has always been backward-looking, Beach Fossils are very much a post-Internet indie rock outfit, the kind whose embrace of outmoded sonic sensibilities is borne out of historical fascination and loving, sincere reverence.
In the context of the band’s discography, Clash the Truth is a progression. While an at-ease bliss courtesy of delicately chiming guitar pervaded the group’s music as recently as 2011’s What a Pleasure EP, now the stripped-down lineup of Payseur and Davidson have picked up the pace, a noticeable result of Payseur’s recent reimmersion in the punk rock he favored as a teenager. When before the Fossils’ speed could at best be described as sprightly, now they exhibit a restlessness given some added weight by Payseur’s increased inclination to strum chords as much as pick out arpeggios, and in the cavernous mix the formerly bare-bones drums skitter about, darting around the edges of the songs like ghostly mice.
When Beach Fossils do slow down, we find that the old sun-kissed vibe of yore now evidences a bluer tenor. “I’m taking off again / It feels like it’s so soon / Am I excited or am I just so confused?” Payseur wonders in “Taking Off Stem”, the somber pace of the music a fitting match for his melancholy lyrics. Even slower and sadder is “Sleep Apnea”, where Payseur’s voice and acoustic guitar drift in circles, a restful slumber seemingly forever out of reach.
It’s a shame that the hazy ambiance Beach Fossils are so enamored with dulls the newfound edges. Even though the band is no longer Payseur’s bedroom recording project, the production of Clash the Truth still bears the limited dimensions of a homemade cassette demo. Songs have to work especially hard to stand out, and the inherent potential of some of the more promising tracks is reined in by the one-sized sonic dressing. The almost-anthem “Burn You Down”, one of the album’s stronger songs, manages to make a virtue of this shortcoming. It’s a song that builds and builds, constantly threatening to triumphantly burst out of the fog that does its damnedest to render the tune’s dynamic thrust inert. It never quite accomplishes its intent, but the attempt remains engaging.
In the past, Beach Fossils have been a bit of a one-trick pony, as winsome as its music could be. Under all that conspicuously dated reverb, Clash the Truth is necessary step forward for the group, showing a more-rounded approach as instrumentalists and greater variation in songcraft that will hold it in good stead once the appeal of merely sounding like a low-budget ‘80s post-punk record loses its drawing power. Despite the undying retromania, the gimmicky production, and the at-times frustratingly short song times (this is very much a record that will breeze by without listeners noticing time ticking away), Clash the Truth is tuneful and nuanced enough to warrant repeat listens even after other like-minded travelers are inevitably forgotten in favor of the next musical revival.