And the award for Most Aptly Named Album goes to…
Surfer Blood has wanted nothing more than to make plain old guitar rock, just like bees make honey and Jimmy John’s makes sandwiches. Astro Coast – the debut record that put the Florida-based four-piece on the map in 2010 – was constructed with a no-frills formula that the band could have replicated for their second, third, and maybe fourth albums. Surfer Blood was destined for consistency, but alas, the rocky years following their debut would bring anything but.
Along with 2017’s Snowdonia, a defiantly cheery project released in the wake of former guitarist Thomas Fekete’s death, Carefree Theatre marks the start of what may be a lasting period of stability for Surfer Blood. The new album is another attempt to bury the group’s tumultuous past, littered with legal troubles and loss. The title says it all: compact tracks, crisp hooks, bittersweet but ultimately hopeful lyrics. In some ways, it’s the kind of upbeat, easygoing record that the band tried to make with Astro Coast; the group has even signed back on with Kanine Records, which released their debut. Carefree Theatre is also neater and less hyperactive than their 2010 record – the modest thrills that were present then are far and few now. Surfer Blood was never one to push the frontier of rock music, but if the band ever offered any surprises, we probably won’t be seeing any more of them soon. This, however, is to be expected; for a band mired in the rebuilding process, steps come one at a time.
“Karen,” the album’s lead single, may not be as rowdy as 2009’s acclaimed “Swim,” but its chorus comes close to capturing the same energy-soaked high. The guitar line pulses with a subtle intensity while the drums gingerly keep up the pace. John Paul Pitts’ smooth, assured voice is a good fit for the cutesy lyrics: “I wasn’t hungry, I couldn’t speak/ first time I heard your voice out on your street.”
One song alone, nevertheless, can’t bear the weight of an entire album. The other ten tracks trail behind in quality, not because they’re unpleasant, but rather because they never commit to a lane other than the one prescribed by generic guitar pop. “In My Mind” is breezy and delicate, but not much else. “Parkland (Into the Silence)” is at odds with itself, flip-flopping between dissonant Pixies-style verses and a light, inoffensive chorus. “Dewar” is a particularly notable misstep that finds gentle acoustic work mashed up with awkward references to everything from a “brooding little boy” to the “military-industrial complex.”
Perhaps these faults wouldn’t stick out like a sore thumb if Surfer Blood had done something elsewhere on the album to grab our attention. Instead, Carefree Theatre takes the safe middle ground and lowers the stakes. It’s listenable, and it may even be lively at points, but it isn’t perfect. Surfer Blood has stumbled through extenuating circumstances to get to this point, and with their second optimistic album in a row, it looks like they finally have a shot at securing their footing. Whether they’ll return to the chaos they so eagerly embraced on Astro Coast is unclear; they’ve probably faced enough of it outside of the studio.