In their relatively short existence, Floridian band Surfer Blood have had quite the wild ride. After their self-produced debut record, Astro Coast, they were signed to Sire/Warner Bros. for their follow-up, Pythons, with legendary Pixies producer Gil Norton behind the boards. Two years later, though, they were back in the indie world with another self-produced album, 1000 Palms. To invoke the cliche, the only constant has been change. However, the band’s latest record, Snowdonia (Joyful Noise) marks perhaps the biggest change as it’s the first release since the death of founding guitarist Thomas Fekete and the departure of founding bassist Kevin Williams.
As such, the band featured on Snowdonia is nearly a new creation, with singer John Pitts and drummer Tyler Schwarz recruiting Lindsey Mills on bass and formalizing the membership of guitarist Mike McCleary, who filled in for Fekete when he was unable to tour. An added wrinkle is that now Pitts is the sole songwriter, which means he has to, whether consciously or not, push in a new direction while still keeping elements of the old Surfer Blood. When you compare the previous three albums, however, there’s enough variation that the band wouldn’t necessarily have to be bound to one sound. It also helps that Pitts is once again handling the production duties.
The result is a record that plays both sides of the fence by bringing in elements of the past with an eye towards the future. One of the notable new elements on Snowdonia is the smart utilization of Mills’ backing vocals, which give the songs more depth sonically. Surfer Blood also challenge themselves with funky time signatures and some epically long songs, the almost five minutes long “Six Flags In F of G” and the near eight-minute title track. What remains unchanged is the presence of tight pop hooks. While the title and artwork might suggest an icier approach, the hooks are still pure Florida sunshine. Far removed from the band’s noisy, ramshackle garage days, the songs invoke XTC and ‘60s pop.
Lyrically, Pitts doesn’t shy away from the darkness of the past few years, which also included his mother’s cancer diagnosis. However, the arrangements and tone tend to keep the darkness in check. Pitts has never been one for Springsteen-style directness, so some of the details have to be teased out. For example, on the surface “Taking Care Of Eddy” could just be read as a frothy, up-tempo pop jam until you realize that it’s literally about taking care of someone who’s incapable of caring for themselves. Similarly, it takes a minute to realize “Carrier Pigeon” is a song both for and about his mother.
Snowdonia isn’t necessarily a “return to form,” but the band certainly sounds rejuvenated. With only eight songs, there’s no messing around, and even on the longer cuts you can hear the band pushing themselves in ways they haven’t before. By not playing it safe this version of the band could win back old fans and convert some new ones at the same time.