Tripping on Surf Pop's New Wave - Summer Week on BTR


Courtesy of Mexican Summer

“There’s somethin’ about the summer…”

For a couple of months at the SoHo Urban Outfitters where I once committed myself to the asylum that is the overnight shipping crew, a deal had been put into motion with Mexican Summer’s surf pop queen Bethany Cosentino and her band Best Coast to rotate her charming album Crazy For You at peak shopping hours in their flagship location. Punching in after a light day’s sleep, I absorbed the soporific ambiance of the music and shuffled into the stock room to unpack a hundred boxes of trendy clothes made cheaply in Indonesia, Malaysia, India, etc. As tired store clerks ushered out any lingering tourists (who assume American shopping never sleeps), Cosentino drooled out her closing remarks, “I hate sleeping alone, I hate sleeping alone, alone, alone, alone,” and I forgot how inane my job was.

California, but more specifically the dripping, reverbed Stratocaster licks of Dick Dale and the richly laden harmonies of Brian Wilson, conjured up such a dreamy, intangible rock revolution in the 1960s that its popularity has survived mostly because it never managed to overwhelm its listeners with angsty punk or tirelessly baroque hair metal. Brian Wilson said that he just wasn’t made for these (those) times, but we all just assumed he was waxing nostalgic, not predicting that his up-in-the-clouds sensibility would be the modus operandi of 21st century youth.

Surf pop’s current renaissance via Panda Bear, his followers, and Mexican Summer is a testament to the paradox of its nature as a seemingly innocent, unadulterated sound that is routinely used for commercial purposes – whether as classic jingles or as contemporary marketers’ attempts at reaching out to the desensitized youth culture. Black Moth Super Rainbow, Ariel Pink, and many others comprise quite a crew of acid-induced rock that does not at the moment seem ripe for commercial use, but many of their labelmates, Best Coast included, are watching their murky psychedelic grooves see the light of day.

If Mexican Summer were a community instead of a record label, it would be a modern day sonic hippie utopia; at its core is the twice-distilled psychedelia powering a dizzy rotation of micro-genres like psych-folk, psych-rock, and psych-pop, but at the edges are hints of mainstream fare with radio appeal. Crazy For You, as some clever UO marketing executive foresaw, is an ideal consumer mood setter that teams up with the vintage looks of the store’s offerings and creates a rich backdrop of slavish coolness. Modern zombie allegories left one thing out when they foretold the zombie apocalypse’s commercial connection: a fittingly chillaxing soundtrack to drone from loudspeakers as listener-consumers feast on sales racks and 2-for-1 deals, all the while nodding their heads in agreement with the music overhead.

One of the least chillaxed artists on Mexican Summer, Kurt Vile, has pressed to make rock ‘n’ roll more relevant in jaded circles with Smoke Ring for My Halo, an album that bridges the gap between psych-folk and reliable rock. Unlike the majority of Mexican Summer artists, Vile exposes his innermost sincerity; that is not to say that the rest of MS is insincere, but they often lack the bravery and honesty of a songwriting specialist.

Wooden Shjips’ droning psychedelia is a Doors’ inflected meditation on current trends of musical nostalgia. Their labelmates Real Estate draw more heavily on a lo-fi folk tradition, weaving a lost-tapes feeling into their hyper-chilled out rock. Both acts are perfect in-the-shade summer music.

Bipolar Bear, maybe the most hardcore band on the label, sounds like early 90s, Steve Albini-like urgency rock but with vocal manipulations that fit their sound more closely into a Mexican Summer mold.

So many different reimaginings of past sounds are found in the artists at Mexican Summer that, browsing through audio samples on their website often seems like a comprehensive historical depiction of what happened in the 60s and 70s psych-rock and surf pop scenes and leads one to believe that it’s all a hoax, and these bands are all dead.

Predictions of music’s imminent immersion in a deep sea of nostalgia are as vapid as the constant apocalyptic sub-narrative that has pervaded entertainment media in the last decade; obsessing over the “death of” this and that is pandering and dull. That being said, the repetition-reliant, dreamlike state that “chillwave” purveys can easily be described as masturbatory, but just as initial critics of rock ‘n’ roll dismissed the musical form for its overtly sexual nature, the state of the world and its effects on mentality (however all-encompassing a cop out that may be) have sculpted the success of such an intangible musical genre founded on escapism and genre-sifting nostalgia. It is a trend that darkly mirrors the less deplorable carefree attitudes emerging from 1950s American post-war elation, acting as a faithful companion to trance, generic dub-step, and other genres that rely on motives of distraction rather than intrigue.

Surf pop’s initial popularization in the 60s followed the minimalist structure of its inception, capitalizing on the hit-making potential of quickly written jams just as punk music would do in the 80s. That lo-fi, easily manufactured good vibration caught on so well that it nearly doomed pop’s artistic legitimacy, as its likability was such that the art of trying escaped people like Brian Wilson almost completely until he grew fed up with his own exploitation and broke from the mold to create the magnificent Pet Sounds. If it weren’t for the cash flow from Wilson’s constant hit machine, however, Pet Sounds may have never existed. Such can be predicted and hoped for this current generation of surf rockers and pop artists – that something might emerge from the hazy but commercially magnetic sounds of Toro Y Moi, Best Coast, Washed Out, Ariel Pink et. al. and lead “surf” music or chillwave to another work of art comparable to Pet Sounds. Otherwise, like the waves that brought these sounds to shore, surf tunes will recede, coalesce with future and past sounds, and then return to shore another day.

Written By: Jakob Schnaidt