by Mike Faloon
Surf City’s self-titled EP from 2007 is one of my favorite debut records of all-time. It’s an amazing update on the New Zealand sounds that defined that island’s music scene throughout the ‘80s and early ‘90s—the Clean, the Chills, the Verlaines, the Bats, and Sneaky Feelings, among others. Uptempo songs marked by simple but clever arrangements, literate lyrics that acknowledged the hardships of daily life without yielding to them, and anthemic gather-together-and-raise-‘em-high melodies. Surf City made a big splash in a few ponds, mine included. Then they went away.
For two years I made periodic searches for signs of this New Zealand quartet and found nothing. Until now: Kudos, the first full-length record. And what did they do, this band with the near-perfect debut to their credit? They slowed down their songs. They blurred their lyrics. (I’d love to sing along with “Crazy Rulers of the World” or “Teacher” but I can’t distinguish out a word.) They scaled back the backing vocals. They took out a lot of the space between the guitar lines, swirling everything together. In short, they did as much tweaking as a band can do without overhauling or dismantling. And Surf City cooked up another fantastic record in the process.
On Kudos there seems to be a strong shoegazer influence — Stone Roses, Charlatans, Lush, and the like. All of the elements are audible but it takes a bit of work to untangle them, if you’re so inclined. Often it’s better just to get lost. A post-modern version of watching the woods fill up with snow.
Two significant differences, though. One, Surf City have built a great record, 9 or 10 really good songs out of eleven. The aforementioned shoegazer crowd were singles bands, at best. Second distinction: acting together versus acting alone. Just like their first record, Kudos radiates a strong sense of “we’re all in this together!” I ran into their drummer after a recent show at Mercury Lounge and complimented him on his floor-tom-over-hi-hat style (which reminds me of Mo Tucker). He shrugged and said, “Keep it simple. It’s all about the song, right?” Translation: it’s about the band, not me. Not the sort of thing we’d get from the Happy Mondays or someone else from the navel gazing ‘90s. Back then it seemed to be more about locking into your own “groove” and if it happened to synch up with your bandmates, well, that was a nice coincidence and all, something to chat about back on the tour bus, but it wasn’t by design. Probably why I don’t spend much time with those records.
Surf City didn’t keep much from the debut EP, and that bums me out because it’s such a remarkable record, but Kudos is pretty damn good.