Release Date: Jun 11, 2013
Record label: Sire
Genre(s): Pop/Rock, Alternative/Indie Rock, Alternative Pop/Rock, Indie Rock
Four young Floridians who go by the name of Surfer Blood came bursting onto the underground music scene in 2009 as a Pitchfork/Stereogum buzz band, with their first demo of "Swim" generating quite a bit of excitement around popular indie rock blogs. Their blend of '90s Weezer love, Smashing Pumpkins/shoegaze guitar fuzz and South African influenced beats helped them gain traction among the competitive digital and internet-based music world and its ongoing million band competition. Plus, the songs that ended up on 2010's debut Astro Coast were just suuuper good.
You pretty much know where you're going with Florida's Surfer Blood: melodic surf rock viewed through a sepia-tinged Instagram filter. It's music for summer road-trips that feature station wagons with the windows down and surfboards bungeed to the roof. That was the successful recipe on their 2010 debut Astro Coast, and new album Pythons doesn't stray far from the feel good movie formula.
Surfer Blood frontman John Paul Pitts made headlines last year when he was arrested on domestic battery charges following a confrontation with his then-girlfriend. The conflicting emotions surrounding that fateful night seem to have settled like a heavy cloud over the lyrics on Surfer Blood’s second album—and major label debut—Pythons. Despite this dark lyrical shift, the group is still aping sunny surf-rock and collegiate-pop tropes.
Like Weezer? This one's for you. Of the growing tide of surf-inspired indie rock bands to emerge from small town America, Florida’s Surfer Blood perhaps seemed the least likely to translate cult acclaim into mainstream success. Their scuzzy Beach Boys revivalism, while showcasing a fine style of summer songwriting, wasn’t as accessible as the likes of Wild Nothing or Best Coast.
The two years between the Tarot Classics EP and Pythons weren't easy for Surfer Blood. In 2012, singer/guitarist John Paul Pitts was arrested for domestic battery; ultimately, charges were not filed and the case was dropped. When listening to the band's second album, however, it's hard to imagine that there were ever any clouds on their horizon: these are some of Surfer Blood's most lighthearted songs yet, and some of their slickest, too.
"Apologies, meet apologies," Surfer Blood's John Paul Pitts sings on "Demon Dance", the lead-off track from his band's second LP, Pythons. Pitts spends most of Pythons pleading, bargaining, rationalizing, trying to make some sense of an increasingly dire situation in any way he can. There's a longstanding tendency in pop music to read too much autobiography into lyrics.
The preppy pop sounds of Surfer Blood’s debut Astro Coast back in 2010, led by the hand to the dance by the monumentally addictive single ‘Swim’, were a sweet and cool refreshment. The endearing, fresh-faced Floridians seemed to be channelling The Beach Boys, bubblegum and the 50s-centric songwriting style of a pre-dickhead Rivers Cuomo in a time when such confections were a novelty. Fun times indeed, and while that record had its dark, unusual lyrical aspects it was left to follow-up The Tarot EP to take a few musical risks via remix work from the likes of School of Seven Bells and Totally Sincere.
For many, it'll be impossible to approach Surfer Blood's sophomore release completely unconscious of the allegations raised against singer John Paul Pitts. In March of 2012, Pitts was arrested on charges of domestic battery after an argument broke out between him and his then-live-in girlfriend. Though eventually cleared, a public backlash was unavoidable.
Pythons is a fitting name for Surfer Blood’s sophomore record. Like the serpents with their coils, the 10 songs here may initially be overlooked, then before you know it, they’re wrapped around you without any sign of loosening their grip. The listener may underestimate their melodies for they are so immediate and do not hold anything back, but by the third or fourth time you’ve spun the disc, there’s no getting the hooks out of your head.
Floating somewhere between the beach-pop revival and guitar-geek fixations of the late aughts, Surfer Blood's debut was a solid example of contemporary cross-pollination, matching breezy melodies with tightly wound, technically accomplished musicianship. The absorption of of-the-moment signifiers, including scraps of African polyrhythms and Latin percussion, contributed to tightly composed songs that prescribed relaxation while remaining edgy and tense. While not stretching for any special level of ambition, the album did a couple of things really well, namely constructing addictive, gradually building guitar lines within the context of a stifling atmosphere of free-floating dread.
Though it’s only three years old, Surfer Blood’s 2010 debut Astro Coast already feels like a product of its time. Born of indie-rock’s brief beach craze of the late ’00s and dotted with the peppy Afro-pop guitars recent college grads of the era were using to project worldly sophistication, it’s loaded with signifiers that had already been run into the ground by the time of its release. Despite all that, the record still sounds fresh.
One of the most promising moments for guitar rock in 2010 came at the home stretch of Surfer Blood’s impressive debut LP, Astro Coast, with six minutes remaining in the album and at the halfway point of its penultimate track “Anchorage”. The song suddenly turns on a dime from the minor to major key, the drumbeat spaces itself out some, and frontman JP Pitts and drummer TJ Schwartz start hitting their instruments with a little extra force and enunciation. Then they just hold it there for 24 measures, harnessing adrenaline, so that when Pitts finally steps to the mic to break his silence with, “Some people can’t relate, and others have a lot to learn/ I don’t wanna spin my wheels, I don’t wanna let my stomach squirm,” it sounded like he was dropping a truth bomb all over indie rock, and with as much ambition and awareness as anyone else that year.
Up from the indie minors, Florida's Surfer Blood fill their second full-length with insistent jangle, Anglophile emoting and hangdog melodies that suggest collegiate mope rock might never go away. Producer Gil Norton smooths the foursome's edges while interjecting horror-comic backup yelps that marked his Pixies work decades ago; little else here would befuddle aging Cure or Weezer fans. John Paul Pitts bares girlfriend woes, most flamboyantly in the catchy opener, "Demon Dance": "C'mon, Raven, let me connect to the server." His arrest last year for domestic battery – a case later dropped – casts a pall over his worries and apologies, though, which also get more pat from there.
There’s a moment towards the end of “I Was Wrong”, the fourth track of Surfer Blood’s second album, when singer John Paul Pitts viciously barks out the song’s title, transforming it from a gently jangling ditty into a visceral, primal outburst of rage and regret. It’s doesn’t last for long—Pitts shouts that phrase six times over 15 or so seconds—but the effect resonates for much longer. This is, after all, the frontman who, in March 2012, was arrested for domestic battery after an incident with his girlfriend.
Surfer Blood first emerged in 2010, cruising along atop the lo-fi-surf-pop-beach-punk wave. It’s a mean feat to handle – firstly that’s a lot of adjectives there to stay on top of. It’s also a rather crowded ocean, with all kinds of other chancers dropping in on Surfer Blood’s wave, man. The Drums, Best Coast, Tennis, – any other band with four chords and a gnarly story to tell - all these youngsters purveyed something extremely similar.