Day 101: Summer’s For Music – The Problem with Surfer Blood’s “Pythons”

by Tom Noonan

This review is also live on Virgin Red Room here.

There is an inherent problem to Surfer Blood’s sophomore album and major label debut, Pythons, that is both completely out of the band’s control and directly related to the identity of the band itself.  Ever since their ocean-drenched love letter to riff-rock debut, Astro Coast, found itself permanently buzzing inside the heads of critics in 2010, Surfer Blood has staked its claim to the title of escapist-core auteurs.  It’s a label that both made their debut so broadly appetizing and is now causing their follow-up to seem mostly inconsequential.

The part of this problem that is out of the band’s control has to do with the current pop-culture climate.  Right now, across the zeitgeistial board, there is little to no room for art that does not challenge its audience.  What is often referred to as the post-Sopranos era by TV critics is spilling over into every medium is creating a seismic ripple effect of sorts that is managing to up the ante for expected audience engagement while also strangling off earnestness in mass quantities.  This rapid changing of the guard calls for complications, not resolutions, and, on Pythons, Surfer Blood has little of either.

Normally, I would argue that there is merit in an escapist-core album as weightless as Pythons, and that argument might contend that there is a certain amount of skill needed to make expert craftsmanship sound so effortless.  I might even posit that Python is an album that allows you to forget someone is behind the wheel, that when its smoothed down riffs and mirror house hooks set in, the songs begin to feel as if they’ve always been there, humming low amid the static that soundtracked 90s summer nights.  I’d probably close with something like, “Each cut on Pythons comes with memories attached, embedded deep in their DNA”, but all of that would be self-defeating because, as it turns out, Pythons is closer to an Instagram profile than anything else.  This all has to do with the second part of the problem: the band’s identity.

I guess I misled you before, which is only partially true, when I said that it was the band’s identity that made this album so problematic.  It is actually less the band’s identity than it is the context that Pythons a less-than-compelling entry.  In the spring of 2012, Surfer Blood’s frontman John Paul Pitts was arrested and charged for domestic battery.  The charges were eventually dropped, but not before the horrible sequence of events tarnished Pitts’ reputation, possibly rightfully so, and threatened the future of the band.  In the weeks that followed, with their future uncertain, Pitts, as well as everyone else involved, avoided any form of public response to what happened.  Then the band started recording and announced a new record, which would eventually come to be titled Pythons.  This is the context.

When you first listen to the record, there is an inescapable feeling of a cover-up.  As wrong as this gut-reaction may be, there is some truth to the basic nature of it.  Pitts may not have an obligation as an artist to confront the events of the past year, and I would never argue that he should, but the generic emotional emptiness of the album is stretched wider as a result, effectively drowning out most of the sun-spilling fun.  On the album’s first track, the typically well-designed vehicle, “Demon Dance”, Pitts sounds oblivious, singing, “A word has weight/When it rings true”.  It’s too bad he didn’t heed his own advice here because Pythons could have been a great record.

Listen to “Demon Dance” below: