Front to back, Surfer Blood’s debut album Astro Coast is catchy as hell, and like all catchy music, the melodies make so much sense that they sound effortless. With sturdily-constructed, semi-noodley guitar-centric rock like this the comparisons to The Shins and early Weezer are absolutely unavoidable. That’s really no big deal, though, because where I come from that’s good company. Even using that starting point, Astro Coast brings interesting qualities all its own, and even though it’s early, it’ll be surprising to hear another album this year which ingratiates itself to the listener as quickly and thoroughly as this does.
So what sets this apart from the rest of the indie-rock field? For starters, there are the faintest echoes of surf music to support their name, from the tubular dueling guitar-off of “Neighbor Riffs” to the overamped reverb treatment of the vocals on “Swim”, “Twin Peaks”, and “Slow Jabroni”. But to me, the key here is the modest but bursting-at-the-seams quality of the songwriting. The songs don’t sound busy, but aren’t afraid to go places that more concise pop songwriting doesn’t bother with. Why not cut into the middle of the otherwise power-focused “Swim” with a jaunty little rodeo-riff interlude? Or how about giving the echoing and tropical “Take It Easy” an extended motorik outro? Maybe build a song out of a few chiming harmonics (“Harmonix”)? For Surfer Blood, these things are no problem, and their inclusions doesn’t sound like they were given a second thought. Instead of milking each musical phrase for everything its worth, Surfer Blood burn through riffs with gusto and move on to the next idea without looking back. It’s sort of like a movie scene showing a sexually inexhaustible young couple going at it repeatedly, undeterred by the limits of normal experience, confident and restless.
One criticism I have is that the meaning here is a little difficult to take away. Bearing another mark of energetic but restless youth, the songs focus almost exclusively on the interpersonal dynamics that are so important from the end of high school to the years of stabilizing professionalism, without really pushing deeper or matching lyrical content to the mood of sound. The last third of the album does well at conjuring a resigned sweetness, but that leaves two thirds somewhat confused and rudderless. This vagueness results in a limited emotional pay off, and leaves little to hang your hat on. And although there is a vibrant immediacy and innocence in the music that sits in well for the lack of distinct personality, most listeners’ search for meaning will probably go no further than these surface “sounds like” comparisons to other bands – bands that share the same sounds but did them first with more clarity of purpose.
Keeping things in perspective, though, it is better to have music that sounds great but comes up a little short thematically than to have great words set to music that sounds like shit. Whatever the hell an Astro Coast is or what it has to do with the personal stories included on this album, I may never know. But what I do know is this: Astro Coast succeeds admirably because it pulses with a fun, youthful, and invigorating feel, and obvious lack of arty pretenses, studio mediation, or self-importance. Not every band can be Radiohead, thankfully.