I was not old enough, back when “alternative rock” still had cultural coherence, to know what it was an alternative to. I certainly wasn’t old enough to care. My reaction to the first Weezer album, for instance, was callow and uninformed, which is to say honest; I didn’t even know the Pixies existed until a few years later, by which time rock music’s historical dimension had begun to engage me, intellectually rather than viscerally. That the first bands I loved have all turned out to be derivations and reinventions of other bands, maybe better bands, has never managed to overthrow the glow of that simple, unlearned initial attraction.
The best thing I can say for Surfer Blood, who aren’t old enough to have appreciated alternative rock any more contextually than I did, is that they appeal to me the same way. The difference, of course, is that I make it my business now to be an un-innocent listener: I listen intellectually, triangulate influences, seek affinities and precedents and implications as a matter of instinct. And while Astro Coast has plenty of big flashing indices toward other bands, maybe better bands—Weezer and the Pixies, Built to Spill and the Ramones—none evinces a conscious or meaningful alignment. The album is too loose and lazy for that, too unconcerned with its own identity: what elsewhere might constitute a record’s unifying sound—a lonesome surf-rock twang here, a left-hand-unaware-of-the-right volume imbalance there—is picked up and used here incidentally, almost at random. Inspiration-wise, Surfer Blood pick and choose and scavenge and consume with the same obliviousness to pedigree I wish I could get back and probably never will. It’s not a strategy or a statement. It’s what sounds good.
I’m making it sound suspiciously like Astro Coast is better for what it isn’t than for what it is, which isn’t really true. Behind its shit-fi insouciance (“Never could be still for long, and I could never hold a job / Coupled with a weakness for cocaine and liquor, not much you can do for love”) are high-caliber songwriting and rhythmic sensibilities; the lesser moments, like the jerky opening to “Take It Easy,” get reined in in short order, in this case by stripping down to a hypnotic groove and going on until someone remembers to stop playing first. The longer songs seem to lag but then pull together seamlessly, to especially lovely effect on “Anchorage.” And a few songs—“Catholic Pagans” and “Fast Jabroni,” for two—are just perfectly executed, slightly messy models of what was always rewarding about alternative rock.
It’ll be exciting to see where Surfer Blood go once they bother to figure out who they are, but their potential is the wrong thing to appreciate: it’s their immediacy, their unstudied and unfocused energy, that hits the spot. A total divorce from rock historiography may not be what we need at the outset of a new decade, but now that it’s in front of me, it’s very much what I want. I plan to enjoy it while it lasts.