There is something deeply disingenuous about the psychedelic-and-surf rock revival of the last few years, something cynical about the way the music is painstakingly overproduced to sound as if it was recorded in a garage instead of a top-of-the-line studio, something manipulative about the way it sells itself by evoking a false sense of nostalgia in it audience and something sad about the fact that many of the musicians so dedicated to advancing this decades dead genre do so at the expense of considerable talent. While it’s no great tragedy when a pair of goobers as uninspired as Foxygen sacrifice themselves in honor of a dead idol there is good reason to mourn when a group as promising as Tijuana Panthers throw themselves on the same altar.
In earlier records that talent was amply evidenced whenever the band eschewed the wimpy pop muddling and beach bum theatrics for stripped down guitars and sheer propulsion: Wayne Interest’s “Torpedo” was one of the most imminently listenable songs in ages, “Baby I’m Board” the high watermark for Semi-sweet. There was a sense of energy rarely observed outside of the most exciting punk rock in those moments, an energy that glided so quickly along on the surface it was hard to notice the complete lack of depth below. Somehow, the opposite has happened with Poster: though the band still displays their talents best the farther they stray from their comfortable niche as the resident kings of the beach it’s not in emphasizing their agile guitars above all else that they find their métier but in those moments where they devote themselves to a sound much heavier, much darker.
It’s a promise evident early on in the grinding, bass-intensive introduction of “Set Forth” and in the sinister pseudo-flamenco stylings of “Send Down the Bombs”, and finally fulfilled in “Trujillo,” the album’s closer. Finally all those jangly guitar hooks finally have something to hook on to; the bass and drums which are so often neglected in earlier moments or used only as a kind of engine for the ever-adroit guitars now lend texture and personality to songs that once seemed so much like formalistic exercises. If Phil Shaheen’s vocals are simply too nasally and quaver too much to ever impose the sinister stamp he wishes they might on the songs, if the lyrics never do match the shadowy bent of the instruments. “I Hate Saturday Nights,” a misanthropic scree against the evils of weekend evenings, features clunkers such as “guys prowl / girls scowl / you can’t be enjoying yourself with so many desperate competing attention”. “Send Down the Bombs” tries desperately to make a point about the inhumanity of war but can only sound silly doing so. If the arrangements never stray too far beyond the established boundaries of surf rock they at least travel far enough afield to lend the songs a sense of danger. They make it seem as if Tijuana Panthers are working towards a voice that is their own.
Paradoxically, the strength of these few songs weaken the rest of the album in ways more fundamental. With their suggestive lyrics and darker energies they’re a lurking reminder that every other song, so fun, so content to glide along are like the carefree surfer skimming just inches above some unseen and only vaguely sensed deep-sea predator. Songs as cloyingly precious as “Church Bells” and “Monitor” seem like the misplaced relics they are when juxtaposed against a cover of the Softpack’s politically charged “Right and Wrong.” There’s no explaining away the decision to bridge “Send Down the Bombs” and “Miss You Hardly Know Me” with the limp “Powerplant” as anything but one of those bungles where devotion to form trumps other, more interesting aesthetic considerations.
Yes, the songs are relatively inoffensive and move so quickly that if one is boring another will be along to replace it in a minute but it’s hardly a compliment to excuse music for being so disposable. There’s something darker lurking beneath the too-smooth surfaces and placid attitudes that the Tijuana Panthers trade in, something that often seems ready to breach but is always driven off by the parade of raucous surfers swimming in its water.