by Ben Butina
Alrighty, hodads, here’s the standard rundown on surf music.
It’s the early '60s in Southern California, and loads of teenage Baby Boomers are (a) learning to surf, and (b) dancing with each other. Naturally, they invent a form of instrumental dance music that sounds the way surfing feels. There’s a steady, driving drumbeat and a reverb-soaked guitar that supposedly mimics the experience of riding the waves.
After only five years, though, the heavier sounds and themes of the British Invasion and psychedelia washes out the surf sound. Surf rock has a minor resurgence in the '90s—thanks to Tarantino using the surf classic Miserlou in the opening of Pulp Fiction—but, it never really recovers from its wipeout long enough to get back into the mainstream. Everybody got that?
At first glance, it looks like surf rock is the ultimate “scene” music, arising as it did from a very specific subculture. In reality, most surf rockers never touched a board in their lives. (Hell, bands like The Trashmen out of Minneapolis were thousands of miles from the nearest wave.) Fortunately, surf is the kind of scene that doesn’t involve obsessively separating the “authentic” from the “poseurs.” There are certain kinds of guitars and clothes that most surf rock bands prefer, but for the most part, it really is just about the music, man.
This is one of the nice things about surf: you can pretty much leave the “scene” baggage at the door. It’s impossible for anyone to be in a fake surf band because there are no qualifications other than playing surf music. And, it’s impossible for any surf band to sell out because there’s no money to sell out for. (The most popular surf musician in the world is Dick Dale, and he’s touring constantly just to barely pay his medical bills.) As a newb, you never have to worry about anyone giving you a hard time. They’re happy to have you.
So, are the Turbosonics out of landlocked Pittsburgh, PA a real surf band? Is their new release, Tres Gatos Suave, an authentic surf album? Yes. Now on to the more important question of whether or not it’s any good.
If you’re new to surf music—or you’re only familiar with the '60s stuff— will be a good introduction to where this genre has gone in the last half-century while you were busy sniffing glue and staring at your smartphone.
Surf has gotten bigger and heavier since the '60s, but the focus is still on the melody. Listen to enough surf, and you’ll catch on that this melody business is right at the heart of the music. Too much experimentation and improvisation and you lose the purity and sweetness of the melody. Your music becomes a kind of reverb-soaked jazz and your audience doesn’t have a place to hang its hat. Keep it too simple, though, and your audience gets bored. By the time you’ve played your hook for the third time, the audience is already done with the song.
For most of the tracks on Tres Gatos Suave, guitarist Jason Truckenbrod does a solid job of finding this melodic sweet spot. He passes what I call the “hum” test. (Here’s how it works: When you’re done listening to a track, can you hum the melody? If the song got too far out there, the melody won’t stick. If it was too boring, you won’t want to hum the melody because you’ll be sick of it.) That said, there are a few tracks that I think he veered too far across the experimental border for my taste and I lost the thread. I am a remarkably simple-minded creature when it comes to melody, though, so your mileage may vary.
Melody will always be the heart of surf, and melody is timeless. If "Walk Don’t Run" or "Apache" were released today, we’d be humming those tunes, not saying, “Those melodies sound old-fashioned.” We would probably notice that the rhythm section sounds a little outdated, though, and that’s where surf has evolved most noticeably over the last 50 years. Keith Caldwell (bass) and Timmy Klatte (drums) do a great job of adding texture and interest to these songs while, at the same time, never losing the beat. (Which ain’t easy, kids!)
[You can listen to, and purchase, this release here. -Ed.]