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. It was an absolute textbook bump and set for the clean spike-home of the last track, the melancholically inviting “Catholic Pagans”.
This moment not only demonstrated that the young Florida group had serious chemistry, but also that they possessed a fine sense of when not to constrict a golden groove with rigid structure, but to just let it breathe. And that’s why it’s especially frustrating to report that no such moment exists on their looong-awaited sophomore LP and major label debut for Warner Bros., Pythons. The hooks are still here, but that level of hyper-attentive musicianship is absent on this decidedly punchier, glossier effort. Pythons doesn’t wait long to strongly suggest that after three years without managing a follow-up, Surfer Blood finally become fed-up with getting 10 songs just right and settled.
All of which is rendered even more disappointing by the fact that the first two songs released in advance of Pythons are actually quite impressive and teased a new and improved edge that wasn’t at odds with their current hi-fi route. On “Demon Dance” and “Weird Shapes”, Pitts screams with new modulation – produced to perfection by Gil Norton, the first producer the band has worked with – and adds some bite to an album that lacks any teeth. The former’s an obvious allusion to Weezer’s “The World Has Turned and Left Me Here”, which isn’t surprising; Surfer Blood has been liberal about borrowing riffs or melodies in the past (e.g. this precursor for “Miranda” or this one for “Swim”). There’s nothing wrong with that, per se, but the cribbing’s best when used as a vehicle for inspired new takes – not when it’s on album that’s transparent in simply giving listeners what they want.
In all likelihood, that’s exactly what went wrong here. Pitts has been under plenty of public scrutiny lately, and perhaps it was an over-readiness to return to listeners’ good graces with instantaneous pop over more challenging material that caused the band to rush this to completion. Pythons’ sequencing of 10 average-length songs, with a bar-setting first few tracks and a solid closer (“Prom Song”) but hardly an interesting moment in between, all but begs to be placed alongside Clap Your Hands Say Yeah’s Some Loud Thunder, The Shins’ Port of Morrow, or even Weezer’s Green Album. Waiting on an overdue album is rough for everyone involved, but sometimes when the stakes are high enough, “ready when it’s ready” is best for band and fans alike.
Essential Tracks: “Weird Shapes”, “Prom Song”