Surfer Blood's dreamy beach pop returns, more melancholic and sentimental than ever.
Surfer Blood’s mildly received second album, 2013’s Pythons, should have ideally relieved some of the pressure in making their third, 1000 Palms. With so much distance between the thrilling fuzzy pop of their debut Astro Coast, the public expectations of 1000 Palms weren’t exactly frenzied. Surfer Blood needed to capitalize, to revitalize an audience that had forgotten and abandoned them when the early ‘10s beach rock craze died out.
1000 Palms is unfortunately not the record to do that. No longer able to offer a high concentration of sunny melodies, Surfer Blood blow open their compositional playbook on their new record -- or that’s the plan, anyway. Dreamy beach rock is still their default setting, but, either out of necessity or a desire to evolve, Surfer Blood have replaced their once straightforward joys with a more complicated melancholy. Compare 1000 Palms’ lead single, the wayfaring, slow-paced “I Can’t Explain”, with the band’s debut single from 2009, the energized “Swim”, which made a splash with its big chords and catchy hook. Surfer Blood are now all about subtlety and pathos; they don’t have the urgency of a young band anymore, nor the wisdom or confidence of seasoned veterans who have weathered their share of artistic droughts.
1000 Palms is certainly the most ambitious thing Surfer Blood have attempted in their short career, but ambition means little if the execution isn’t on point, especially when the band’s joyous pop so easily eclipsed their dour, self-serious indie rock in the past. Listen to the wooden riffing on “Into Catacombs” and compare it to the similarly composed but far more spirited performances of “Swim” and “Floating Vibes”. The rigidity of even the album’s more sunny and upbeat tracks like “Feast Famine” and “Saber Tooth and Bone” renders them joyless and, ultimately, frustrating to listen to. The music of 1000 Palms, despite its overbearing wash of sentimentality, is played mechanically, written almost scientifically. The result is an album that aims for warmth and humanity but only drags itself into the cold and distant reaches of dispassionate convention. When a beach rock band can’t even get the temperature right, you know there’s a problem.
There are still some sparse moments of bliss in the stiff, aloof grind, granted. The groovy, Built to Spill-esque outro of “Covered Wagons”, for instance, teases that Surfer Blood still know how to let loose and ride on a playful riff, though it only lasts a scant eight bars. “Grand Inquisitor”, after its propulsive first section, careens into an uncharacteristically choppy rhythm that finds the band charmingly off-balance. Even with its low, mumbled vocals, “NW Passage”, the album’s floaty acoustic closer, is light enough to counter much of the preceding anguish, and it makes for a beautiful and appropriate finish. Unfortunately, it’s also out of step with the rest of 1000 Palms’ somber amblings, managing a delicate poignancy that fails to connect with the other songs. Surfer Blood tease at a break away from the formula, but because 1000 Palms is a mostly unsatisfying grab for a standardized sound, even the most interesting moments fade away into the gray motionlessness.