Cabana Wear is the self-titled debut album from a group of New Jersey and Philadelphia music scene veterans, including members of It’s a King Thing, By Surprise, and Crucial Dudes. The band’s biography spotlights the members’ “mutual love of ’90s alternative and power pop” as Cabana Wear’s raison d’être. In the past year, heavyweights of that time and musical style have returned with new albums of varying quality, ranging from top form (Smoking Popes’ Into the Agony) to a couple of tracks that rival past glories (Ash’s Islands) to outright face-plants (Weezer). Yet Cabana Wear, in which these power pop pupils surpass the masters, is the best of the lot.
Of the various projects Cabana Wear’s members have been involved in, it is vocalist/guitarist Brian Mietz’ It’s a King Thing that the music of this album most resembles. The cover art might as well be a continuation of the swimming pool setting featured in the video for It’s a King Thing’s excellent 2014 single “Slug Sound”. The lyrical terrain and vocal performance style of Cabana Wear also have much in common with those of It’s a King Thing. But that band’s records set such a high bar that Mietz’ Cabana Wear bandmates, drummer Eric McConathey, bassist Dan Saraceni, and guitarist Alec McVey, are to be credited with creating a sound world here that is every bit as satisfying as It’s a King Thing.
The melodies and layered guitar lines of Cabana Wear are instantly engaging, which contrasts within the often-downcast emotions of the lyrics. One result of this combination is that Cabana Wear covers territory that younger rock bands have also been preoccupied with in recent years. Modern Baseball’s 2014 song, “Rock Bottom”, for example, typifies a conflicted state similar to the cycle Mietz explores on this album. What emerges is a pop-punk through-line involving a character who is alternately (or simultaneously) hungry, self-conscious, sick, bedbound, aimless, and in and out of love. That such a theme is evergreen for bands in this genre might have less to do with the musical style and more to do with the twilight of young adulthood and the looming colossus of middle age. This feeling stretches beyond pop-punk and power-pop, too. Consider that some people mishear “life’s so wild” as “life’s a while” in Kurt Vile’s “Life’s a Beach”.
Just about any song on the lean and consistent Cabana Wear could be called a highlight of the album. The first track, “Get Well”, establishes the fevered condition of a day home sick, watching game shows on television. For listeners who see that scenario as evocative of youth, then it’s possible that Cabana Wear charts a path from childhood to adulthood. Though there’s not sufficient evidence that the album’s concept is that fixed, the relationships and reactions covered in the lyrics do accumulate toward more grown-up realities within the sequence of songs.
There are also currents of humor and playfulness alongside the generally upbeat musicality, intertwined with the reflective, observational lyrics. The best example is “St Napster”, whose title and references to “the zone” almost certainly allude to the Metallica documentary Some Kind of Monster—perhaps the definitive view of wild rock and roll success as a middle-life slog. The singsong cadence and performance of “Tommy” are creative in the tradition of Riff Raff’s legendary verse from “Bird on a Wire”, in which the rapper chops his own verse as he delivers it.
All of this adds up to how well executed Cabana Wear is. At a time when some of the progenitors of this style of rock music are hitting walls creatively, or by shifting styles asserting that there’s nothing left to explore, a regional super-group comes along to show how relevant this sound can be. They also know how to close. “Where I Am” envisions another sort of sick day at home, but unlike “Get Well”, this one slows to a different zone, something like Sunny Day Real Estate on Diary. That shift opens up new possibilities for what a listener might expect from Cabana Wear, indicating the depth of the sources they might draw from should the band continue to record.