In the opening minutes of Kudos, Surf City make a fine first impression. They’ve got a Steve Keene painting on the cover, guitars rendered larger-than-life and fuzzed-out, and hazy, overlapping vocals setting a mood somewhere between psychedelic and narcotic. The choice of Keene as artist seems particularly appropriate: Given his association with (among others) Pavement, it’s a nostalgic nod of the head, and his fondness for bright colors and loose forms meshes neatly with this New Zealand quartet’s approach to playing. And opener “Crazy Rulers of the World” is a massive way to kick things off, boasting vocals sung through blown-out speakers, and a guitar melody that opens ecstatically and never wavers.
A few songs in, that approach starts to earn some concern. There’s a worrisome trend, espoused by many bands that traffic in the psychedelic, away from any sort of range; of wanting to get straight to the transcendental moments that the best music of this style triggers without actually going through the necessary buildup to earn that exuberance. And while this album’s opener and its title track certainly tap into a guitar-pop nirvana, the question begins to hang: Is this all that Surf City can do?
Thankfully, “Icy Lakes,” the album’s longest song (and its best) is a fine indication that Surf City’s emotional range is fuller and more complex than their early forays into bliss-pop might suggest. Over the course of nearly eight minutes, we’re treated to a slow build, to moments that peak and then veer off in related direction, with vocals running throughout like a supercharged circa-’89 Dean Wareham.
At its best, Surf City’s debut is catchy in both melodies and enthusiasm. And while the latter occasionally prevents this album from achieving resonant emotional depths, “Icy Lakes” suggests that they are very capable of achieving those if they so choose. One hopes that this group’s next project will find them turning more in that direction.