Beach Slang Hit a Wall on 'Deadbeat Bang of Heartbreak City'
On Deadbeat Bang of Heartbreak City, James Alex's (Beach Slang) homage to his heroes sounds exhausted.
The Deadbeat Bang of Heartbreak City
10 January 2020
In 2018, Beach Slang frontman James Alex described his Philadelphia pop-punk outfit as a "fawning" homage to the Replacements. He's not the first to point that out; much of the excitement surrounding the band's debut, 2015's The Things We Do to Find People Who Feel Like Us, drew positive comparisons to Paul Westerberg's endearingly drunk, heart-on-sleeve anthems. And, really, it's not a bad formula. You could do a lot worse than ripping off Let It Be, Tim, or Pleased to Meet Me. But after two records as Beach Slang and a third as Quiet Slang (a full album of acoustic renditions of Beach Slang songs), it seems he's finally hit a wall. The band's latest, The Deadbeat Bang of Heartbreak City, is an aimless collection of half-baked ideas that makes 33 minutes feel interminable.
According to Alex, his process for Deadbeat Bang was smashing "Angus Young into Marc Bolan". The problem is that Beach Slang's alchemy ignores both of those acts' gleeful embrace of tongue-in-cheek camp. The results are humorless late 1970s facsimiles like "Bam Rang Rang", "Stiff", "Born to Raise Hell" ーsongs with sleazy riffs and dumb lyrics that lack even the slightest wink. It's as if they stopped trying to write "Bastards of Young" and instead set their sights on the more attainable "Dose of Thunder".
It's not all loud bluster, though. Acoustic numbers "Nobody Say Nothing" and "Nowhere Bus" conclude the record's A-side. Meanwhile, the nearly seven-minute "Bar No One", a painfully slow piece of melodrama about looking "pretty in my grave", brings the album to a close. Alex remarked that Quiet Slang's key influence was the Magnetic Fields, but the overblown string arrangements and strained whisper vocals sound a lot closer to the Goo Goo Dolls' worst moments.
At this point, Beach Slang seems to be facing the same creative exhaustion that plagued other Westerberg acolytes, like the Gaslight Anthem and Japandroids, in the last decade. I guess that's to be expected. How long can you sing about being an underdog when you're playing sold-out clubs? How many times can you write for "the kids" when you're old enough to have them?
The problem is that so many bands who worship at the altar of Westerberg reduce him to little more than a humorless, hopeless romantic. But part of what made the Replacements so great was their ability to mock the whole self-serious industry of "rock and roll" while simultaneously writing some of its greatest songs. Yet it's damn near impossible to imagine the Gaslight Anthem showing up drunk to Saturday Night Live or Beach Slang naming an album Stink.
Despite its lows, there are a few promising glimmers of hope on Deadbeat Bang of Heartbreak City, where Alex proves he's still more than capable of penning catchy songs when he's playing to his strengths. "Kicking Over Bottles" and "Tommy in the 80s" are sugary power-pop nuggets that suggest steps forward from the formula of his earlier records. They left me optimistic about what James Alex might sound like when he's done trying to impersonate his heroes.