By now, Surfer Blood’s sunny melodies have become synonymous with something much darker: frontman John Paul Pitts’ arrest for domestic battery in March of 2012. Although Pitts maintains that he didn’t hit his then-girlfriend and the charges were eventually dismissed, the incident sullied his band’s reputation significantly enough that, for a time, other bands refused to tour with them.
Their 2013 sophomore release, Pythons, drew heavily on this rocky relationship for its source material. It was also the formerly indie Florida outfit’s major label debut, offering a slicker, more polished version of the band’s ditties than fans had previously been acquainted with. Surfer Blood has been a study in contradictions for the past three years, and if there were ever a time to turn a new leaf, it would be now.
1000 Palms seeks redemption by largely side-stepping these issues, or dealing with them in the larger context of Pitts’ relationship with himself. (The allegations will likely haunt Pitts for the remainder of his career — just ask his idol Isaac Brock, who was accused of date rape in 1999 but never charged.) Opener “Grand Inquisitor” starts off with darkly frantic drums and crashing cymbals, which seem to fit the theme established by the title, but it starkly changes tone halfway through. “Walk right in, you smell like tea and flowers, where have you been?” Pitts sings, as the song hits a new tempo and key, as if ushering in a new lover and, with her, a new era of his life. “Like a Viking in the heat of battle, it’s us and them,” he continues. The “us and them” bit begs to be expanded upon: Who is the them, exactly? Ex-fans? The music sites that covered his arrest and its ensuing drama? None of the above? Pitts is great at clever turns of phrase, but it’s frustrating when his lyrics don’t follow through on their promise to deliver something more substantial.
There are pockets like “Feast/Famine” that share a blisteringly sunny and upbeat sound, even while drawing on some of Pitts’ neuroses for their subject matter. “People ask me, ‘J., why do you let things get to you?’/ Like earwigs on a plant, like pebbles in your shoe,” he sings, confessing later, “Sometimes I feel out of touch with who I am.” “Point of No Return” bounces pleasantly enough, layering shimmering, reverb-heavy guitars over a staccato drumbeat. “I have to ask, what does it take for us to make sense of these hieroglyphs?” Pitts asks. These two songs in particular sound like the aural equivalent of a fake smile plastered on the wearer’s face until it actually starts to make them feel better. It must be said that on 1000 Palms, Pitts is all for taking blame, never playing the victim or dwelling overmuch on anyone else’s faults besides his own.
Pitts and bandmates Tyler Schwarz and Kevin Williams hit their stride a little more convincingly on “Covered Wagons”, which encapsulates some moments of genuine, guitar-driven surf rock bliss about halfway through. “Reaching for a place where you and I can exist, and only time will tell,” Pitts sings. He’s in a new relationship now, and this feels like the most concrete real-life event on which 1000 Palms rests.
As a return to Surfer Blood’s so-called “DIY ethos,” more than anything, 1000 Palms feels labored, lacking the ease and joy that the band’s 2010 debut, Astro Coast, offered in droves. Self-recorded and produced in their hometown of West Palm Beach, Florida, where you can imagine the sunshine sometimes gets oppressive, it’s a technically sound effort that has plenty of clever wordplay and even some moments of sublimity. It is, overall, inoffensive and even likable. But whether or not you’re able to separate the artist Pitts from his art, despite what did or didn’t happen on that night in 2012, there’s nothing on 1000 Palms — from its sunny guitars to its term paper vocabulary — that can’t be found elsewhere.
Essential Tracks: “Grand Inquisitor”, “Feast/Famine”, and “Covered Wagons”