If you asked me to describe the state of rock ‘n’ roll today in one word, that word would be “lifeless.” Whether it’s habit or the insane hope of a religious zealot, each week I continue to rummage through yet another batch of new releases and hear nothing but synthetic garbage by people who mime the conventions of rock ‘n’ roll and have no feel for it whatsoever. Often I’ll sample an album, song by song, and mutter with bitter repetition, “That’s crap. That’s crap. That’s crap.”
I think my neighbors believe I own a parrot.
I tried very hard not to get my hopes up for Beach Day’s new album because I didn’t want to filter my impressions through the desperate expectations of an orphaned rock chick in rock-deprived Paris. Since it’s genetically impossible for me to sit on my ass and do nothing, I decided to spend the time immersing myself in the “girl groups” of the early 1960’s—The Chiffons, The Shirelles, The Crystals, The Shangri-Las—in preparation for an upcoming series on women artists. This decision was a logical progression from Beach Day since their first album, Trip Trap Attack, contained strong echoes of those pioneers, particularly The Shangri-Las. When I needed a change of pace, I buried myself in Patti Smith’s first two albums: Horses and Radio Ethiopia.
Right before Native Echoes came out, though, I started to wonder if that was a wise thing to do and that maybe I had set up Beach Day to fail by juxtaposing their music with the music of two of the most intense and powerful acts in rock history. Whether you like them or not, you can’t deny that Patti Smith and The Shangri-Las are compelling, memorable and deeply influential.
So I followed my prescription for getting the psychedelic era out of my head and gave myself an aural enema. I spent the last two days before the release of Native Echoes listening to classical music. No throbbing beats, no guitars, no erotic vocals, no attitude. I listened to twelve hours of Mozart, Schubert, Saint-Saens, Wagner, Haydn, Bach, Rodrigo and a host of others, and during that entire period, my ass didn’t wiggle, my feet remained firmly in place and I had no urge to jack off. I like classical music, but it’s more of an intellectual/higher emotions experience, and not the let’s-get-down-and-fuck-our-brains out experience of core rock ‘n’ roll.
Therefore, I approached Native Echoes with the attitude of the impatient virgin and wanted to hear something that would figuratively pop my cherry.
I was not disappointed, but I was definitely surprised. That’s good!
What did piss me off was a paragraph from the pre-launch hoo-hah for Native Echoes, which puts way, way too much emphasis on the producer:
On this new LP, they’ve become greater than the sum of their throwback influences. After a year of touring in anticipation and support for their début, Trip Trap Attack, Beach Day headed to Detroit – mecca for both garage rock and the girl group sound – and into the studio of Jim Diamond (the Sonics, the Dirtbombs, the White Stripes). Guided by the experienced hand of Jim Diamond, Beach Day dropped the bits of Northern Soul that appeared on their début and replaced it with feedback, foot stomps, and an electric 12-string guitar run through an Allen Gyrophonic speaker to make it sound like a synth. And so, Native Echoes emerges packing more modern grit. With more instrumental sophistication and all-tape recording, the album features more atmosphere and patina to deepen its new octane.
Kimmy Drake and Skyler Black aren’t even mentioned, giving the reader the impression that they were replaced by androids and that the real hero of the album is the I’m-shocked-they-didn’t-say-“legendary” producer Jim Diamond.
That is breathtakingly astonishing bullshit. If anything, Native Echoes is successful in spite of the production, which at times interferes with the music. Sometimes the effects are overdone, and once you get past “Oh, that sounds cool,” you realize that the effect took you on a detour away from the feel of the song, without adding much in return. The hype for the album makes a big deal out of the fact that this is an analog recording, but tape can’t turn shitty music into great music. There are songs where Diamond’s production adds bottom and texture to the mix, but what really makes this record work is the continuing development of Kimmy Drake as a singer and songwriter and more powerful and effective drumming from Skyler Black.
Look. George Martin was a great producer, but if he had been stuck with Bobby Sherman or Fabian instead of Lennon and McCartney, he sure as shit wouldn’t be Sir George Martin. I think this is part of the problem with rock today: the emphasis is on production and not on the talent (0r glaring lack thereof). What makes Native Echoes work is talent, and I think Beach Day could have recorded the album on swiss cheese and hired Fred Flintstone to produce it and it still would have come out just fine.
It’s the artists, stupid!
I do have to confess to another disappointment before I get to the review. I noted that bassist Natalie Smallish is no longer with the group and Kimmy doesn’t want to talk about it, which is okay with me. What I’m disappointed about—crushed about—is that they didn’t even try to contact me to see if I was interested in the position! I would love that job! And I have qualifications! First, my blonde locks would make for a nice visual contrast with Kimmy’s silky brunette mane, adding more allure to the visuals and sending all the young studs in the audience into a frenzy. Second, I would be perfectly content to quietly stand off to the side and let Kimmy have all the attention because with her voice, she’s going to get all the attention anyway. Third, I can’t sing lead worth shit, but I’m excellent on harmonies and call-and-response due to years of experience singing “Paperback Writer” with a room full of drunken family members. I would be the most loyal, supportive and committed employee that Beach Day ever hired, and I’d even work for beer and tips!
Okay, so I suck at bass guitar, but doesn’t motivation and commitment count for anything these days?
Native Echoes is a very different album than Trip Trap Attack, even when you account for the production differences. Beach Day still rocks but the content is less beach party and more reflective of the uncomfortable truth that relationships with other human beings are often fraught with pain and misunderstanding. It’s not a dark album, but it does explore soured friendships and the unbelievable frustration of trying to relate to people who have no there there. There are times when Kimmy Drake sounds positively tired—not in the sense of her performance, which is always characterized by full-throttle commitment—but tired of the bullshit, traditions and mediocrity that often contaminate human relations.
“All My Friends Were Punks” gets things off to a great start with its strong hand-clapping beat, rough bottom and a confident, cocky vocal from Kimmy. Skyler Black really drives this sucker with a relentless beat with well-timed variations. The song is more attitudinal than lyrical, and the primary focus is on Kimmy’s vocal talents. Her “oohs” in the “Do you remember?” choruses are to die for, and the contrast with the more leather-jacketed sass in the verses demonstrates her seemingly effortless versatility. Kimmy is handling the backup vocals as well, and while she sounds great, I think it will be better in the long run for Beach Day to get a second female vocalist to add contrast and make Kimmy’s lead vocals sound even more stunning than they already are (yes, even if they decide not to choose me for the part). Kimmy also plays a pretty mean guitar, and both the crunchy rhythm guitar and soaring lead solo are ab-fab.
It’s followed by “Don’t Call Me on the Phone,” noticeable at first for an interesting synthesized effect that sounds like it could have fit well on a Freddy Cannon number if Freddy had ever dropped acid at Palisades Park. The style here is more Spectorish girl-group, making it one of the stronger bridges to Trip Trap Attack. The bass and drums form a tight, thumping rhythm, and I love the decision to stop the music in the middle of the last verse—Kimmy sounds positively dominant in that brief a cappella moment. It was a solid enough number to have been selected as the pre-release teaser, but unlike most records where the pre-release teaser turns out to be the only decent song on the record, “Don’t Call Me on the Phone” is really just an appetizer: there are much stronger tracks on Native Echoes.
One of the strongest is “BFF,” short for “Best Friends Forever,” one of those idiotic sentimental slogans that have kept Hallmark in business all these years. This was the first big surprise of the album, because this is nothing like Trip Trap Attack; it feels more like a mid-tempo Lou Reed garage song, with its rough edges and surprisingly rich melody. After the intro of just-plug-the-damn-thing-into-the-amp-and-play electric guitar chords, Kimmy enters with a vocal best described as low-burn irritation, a style she does extraordinarily well. Describing a falling out with a girlfriend, “BFF” exposes all the sticky stuff that somehow gets attached to friendship and completely ruins it: expectations, rituals, and the refusal to let your friend change and grow because you’re hung up on the myth of “best friends forever.” The song appears to open in mid-conversation; Kimmy has just heard the kind of bullshit women lay on each other when they’re pissed off and bitchy, and Kimmy is simply not willing to play the game:
I know who I am and what I have
You can’t make me feel bad
And if you want to leave me out
Well I can make it easy now
‘Cause I don’t want to be your friend
Don’t want to stay to the end
Don’t want to be BFF’s
Don’t want to stay forever
And ever and ever
The downside of having greater emotional intelligence is that few women are ever direct with one another; we tend to dance around the subject and avoid saying anything that might be perceived as “mean.” Well, fuck that shit, say I, and Kimmy apparently agrees. In the second verse she calls “bullshit” on the common intensifier “forever,” something we use to express deep emotion because we slept through the vocabulary-building exercises in school. The problem with “forever” is that it implies a commitment that in turn becomes an obligation, and friendship should never be based on obligation. Kimmy’s repetition of “forever and forever and ever” is perfectly phrased, as if she finds the concept a bit boring and not a little bit absurd. I love the fade on this song; it’s a recitation of stuff girls do when they’re together, bored and can’t think of anything to do. When presented in this fashion on “BFF,” it exposes the emptiness of a friendship when all that holds it together is mindless shared activity:
And I don’t want to watch a movie
And I don’t want to watch some TV
And I don’t want to braid your hair
And I don’t want to put on make up
“BFF” is an absolute knockout performance and a clear demonstration of Kimmy Drake’s development as a songwriter.
We get back to more of the basics with “I’m Just Messin’ Around,” a Skyler Drake-driven rocker that might have made a good fit on a Seeds album, though I’ll take Kimmy’s voice over Sky Saxon’s any day. The lead solo section features a full band bash in double-time, followed by a quick transition to a drums-and-vocal segment that is perfectly executed. It’s followed by “Gnarly Waves,” a sort of intermission piece featuring heavily-reverbed guitar playing a melancholy passage over the sound of waves hitting the beach. There are actually two wave-enhanced tracks on the album, and while the effect is not too much of a distraction here, it does become somewhat problematic in the closing number.
“Pretty” can best be described as kind of an internal dialogue about the dichotomy between the pretty girls and the not-pretty girls, a competition that is truly a useless and obsolete remnant of female evolution, rather like a psychological version of the appendix. Here’s what happens: the culture defines who is pretty and who is not, depending on what’s in vogue at the time. The not-pretty girls hate the pretty-girls, who in turn learn to hate themselves for being pretty because a.) all the other girls envy them and b.) no one takes a pretty girl seriously. Some of the pretty girls are snobs, and they look down at the not-so-pretty girls, which leads the not-so-pretty girls to loathe the pretty ones even more as a way of compensating for their new self-esteem problem. Fucking silly, isn’t it? As one who has been branded “a pretty one,” I have felt both the jealousy and resentment from members of my own gender and the refusal of men to think of me as anything more than an empty-headed piece of ass or a future trophy wife. While I relieve men of those fantasies pretty quickly and have learned that I have to make an extra special effort to make friends with women who resent me at first sight, the point is that the dynamic is absurd and destructive. No beauty lasts forever, and what’s beautiful this year may not be so next year. The point is the expectation that women should always “look pretty” is a drag, because it focuses on appearance and ignores what’s inside. Being pretty also takes a lot of effort, no matter how “naturally beautiful” you may be. In “Pretty,” Kimmy is talking to herself, echoing the neurotic reality that all women feel due to culturally-imposed self-consciousness. The music here kicks ass, with screaming guitars and thunderous drumming from Skyler.
“The Lucky One” is definitely more girl-group than garage, with Kimmy’s voice on heavy reverb and the wall of sound firmly in place. Featuring a lovely melody that sticks in your head (as does nearly every song on Native Echoes), this is one arrangement that really could have used two or three backup singers à la The Shangri-Las. “Fades Away” features a thin organ reminiscent of the organ on “96 Tears,” and is probably the most interesting composition on the record in terms of the contrasting chord structures on verse and chorus. Another song about the disappointments of friendship, “Fades Away” raises the problem of having a friend who has zero self-awareness and is trapped in her own version of reality:
I heard about all the things you said
You don’t know what it was like
To be your friend
Doomed to live a double life
And doomed to lie
Darkness surrounds you
And only you know why
This is hard stuff to tell a friend, and it’s pretty unlikely that the friend will hear it.
“Lost Girl” also features the organ and the musical drama of the girl group genre. I love Skyler’s precise and powerful drumming here, combining steadiness with superb punctuation. Kimmy’s vocal starts in the lower register as she confronts a mixed-up friend who suffers from uncertainty due to a gaggle of “fair weather friends.” This is a person without a strong sense of self who needs validation from others to survive, and while Kimmy once again lays out the unadorned truth for her, she also tries to get her to move on: “Don’t you want to be/Don’t you want to be at peace?” Her voice on those lines is achingly beautiful, displaying her remarkable range and expressive flexibility. Native Echoes ends with “How Do You Sleep at Night,” which is fortunately not a cover of John Lennon’s mean-spirited attack on McCartney, but a very pretty yet sad song addressed to a friend who can’t shake the addiction of living a life based on a façade. The problem I have with the mix is that the waves are far too loud, particularly when listening on headphones. I’d love to hear this song stripped to Kimmy’s pretty harmonies and guitar.
Native Echoes is strong follow-up record that confirms Beach Day’s exceptional talent and their willingness to explore new possibilities in their music without sacrificing their fundamental commitment to rock ‘n’ roll. It’s an album that demonstrates noticeable growth, reveals new possibilities for the future and gets better every time you listen to it.
You can’t ask for much more than that.
In the first part of my interview with Robert Morrow, he asked me what I listen for when sampling new music. I stuttered, stopped, changed my mind, contradicted myself and did all the stereotypical blonde things until I hit on a word: commitment.
What I mean by commitment is that the artist has a crystal clear idea of what they want to accomplish and goes all out to realize that vision, often taking some artistic risks in the process. Commitment is something you can sense in the sound, in the energy, in the connectedness between vision and execution. A good example is Songs from the Wood: if Jethro Tull had produced an album consisting of same-o, same-o Tull songs wrapped in a few superficial trappings of Merrie Olde England, the album would have been a dog. Instead, they made a commitment to integrate many conventions of British folk music into both the lyrics and the arrangements while spicing up the music with contemporary sounds. It represented a departure and a significant risk, but they made the commitment to get it right . . . and they did.
I also tried to describe what turns me off, and I did a really lousy job of it, probably because I was thinking about how nice Robert Morrow’s mustache would feel brushing up against my clit. How can you think about what turns you off when you’re thinking about what turns you on?
Anyway, after I listened to Beach Day’s Trip Trap Attack the requisite three times and reflected on the experience over the next couple of days, I re-engaged my brain to tackle that weighty question. Why is Trip Trap Attack so damned good and most everything else I sample absolute crapola? I finally had my “aha” moment when that irritating bitch Adele appeared on someone’s office radio. I even came up with a theorem, just like in Geometry! Here it is:
“The size of the production must correlate to the essence of the music.”
Today, most popular recordings are “big.” The vocal is enlarged by maximizing reverb and echo. The instruments are enlarged by distinct digital panning, noise reduction and volume, volume, volume. The effect of bigness is to make the listener feel like they’re listening to something important, like a breaking news bulletin.
I have a secondary theory that all mainstream music today is specifically engineered for the television commercials that the music will eventually support, but it’s not ready for publication until I do more research.
What’s interesting is that the most powerful music is often under-produced, or “small-sized.” It creates a sense of shared intimacy with the listener. Think of “Waterloo Sunset,” “Suzanne,” or Hank Williams’ “I’m So Lonesome, I Could Cry.” The arrangements are marked by subtlety; the production restrained. All are exceptionally powerful songs.
The vast majority of popular recordings today have the intellectual depth of a puddle two days after a rainstorm. The lyrics are full of clichés that can easily be transformed into advertising jingles. The essence of the music simply does not justify the drama (size) of the production. Today’s music is largely designed for thrill-seeking morons vulnerable to superficial stimuli seeking escape from their dreary lives. The experience is one of fake intimacy, like porn star sex films. Pretentiousness rules the day.
Beach Day’s début album is anything but pretentious. The musical style is a combination of pre-Beatles girl group, non-falsetto surf music, power pop and classic rock. The production is pure 45 rpm, straight out of the early days of rock. The energy is irresistible and the lyrics contain flashes of brilliance. Beach Day had a clear idea of what they wanted to accomplish and they pulled it off. They made the commitment and saw it through.
My theorem works!
Trip Track Attack opens with a song called “Walking in the Streets.” In reality, it opens with a tiny laugh, followed by a combination of drums and what sounds like a guiro (fish). Even before the power piano chords and unadorned guitar come in, you get a strong sense of Phil Spector in his salad days before he became a murderous weirdo loser. Kimmy Drake’s voice seals the deal: it’s a rich, slightly nasal voice with a sexy mix of attitude and sweetness perfect for the genre. The lyrics begin in girl-chases-boy mode, shifting in the second verse to boy-chases-girl mode: these are two confused ships passing in the fog of young adult relationships. An instrumental segment closes the track, featuring Kimmy’s dead-on classic whoa-oh-oh’s and a beautifully reedy organ. What’s interesting is that this track is drenched in reverb, as was the norm in early American recordings, but the track doesn’t sound “big” and cold in the least. That’s because recording technology in the early 60’s was quite limited, the studios quite primitive and the recordings largely monaural. Bigness was impossible; reverb was used to compensate for technological and architectural limitations. The effect in girl-group songs ironically served to enhance the intimacy: it felt like your girlfriend had pulled you into the girls’ bathroom to tell you a secret. That’s the sound they’ve managed to duplicate in “Walking in the Streets.”
Before you get the idea that this is going to be a 21st century update of either The Shangri-Las’ Myrmidons of Melodrama or The Very Best of the Ronettes, Beach Day takes a sharp turn into power pop with “Boys” (not Ringo’s “Boys”). A straight-ahead rocker with some nice melodic variations and hotter organ bursts (ooh, I like that phrase!), “Boys” shows us that the band knows how to rock while reminding us that sex, sex, sex is at the core of rock ‘n’ roll.
Beginning with a tom roll that awakens memories of The Ventures, we shift to surf music with “Beach Day.” I’ve always loved how life seemed so accessible back in the early 60’s when gas was 27¢ a gallon, making it possible for teenagers everywhere to lug Nehi bottles back to the mom-and-pop to get enough cash to fuel that night’s date:
It’s a beach day, baby and I’m comin’ to pick you up
I’ve got some change in my pocket and I’m comin’ to pick you up.
Today pop bottles come in disgusting plastic and change is this annoying thing you can’t wait to get rid of in the coffeehouse tip jar. What’s different in this song is (if the Gidget movies I’ve watched are accurate representations of the era’s socio-cultural norms) that it’s the girl doing the driving and calling the shots. As it should be! The song fades with a nod to The Beach Boys and the best harmonies on the album. “Stay” (no, not a Maurice Williams cover) comes next, opening with the kind of staccato attack that opened The Supremes’ “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” (no, not the Vanilla Fudge cover). This track adds more contemporary guitar distortion in spots, but also features a repetitive riff-based guitar instrumental that would have been right at home on Shindig.
My favorite song on the album is the definitely-girl-group melodrama “Seventeen.” Drummer Skyler Black opens the song with a bass drum lick that probably required a great deal of discipline not to try to rush it. He’s joined shortly by sweetly strummed guitar chords and the solid grounding of Natalie Smallish’s bass. My reaction to what comes next was “My fucking god, this woman has a beautiful voice!” To say that Kimmy Drake nails this one is an understatement. It would have been very easy to overdramatize this performance, but she avoids overacting and delivers the goods with genuine feeling. The guitars, bass and drums work exceptionally well throughout, and the lyrics are a tiny poetic gem (according to my transcription, anyway). The theme is the timeless American theme of escaping parental programming and finding your own way in life, with “no particular place to go”:
He was only seventeen
When he’d broken all his mother’s dreams. (2)
He was learning how to speak
By watching all the kids on the TV.
Did he know which way to go?
His friend took him where the wind blows,
He said, “I’ll be back someday.”
I was only seventeen
When I met him playing sleigh bells on the street
I was learning to how to be discreet
But my heart always followed its own beat.
Did I know which way to go?
My feet took me where the wind blows,
I said, “I’ll be back someday”
I was only seventeen
When I’d broken all my mother’s fancy dreams.
Tough one to follow! Lucky for us, they’ve got just the song, “Trip Trap Attack,” a bouncy little number that tells a story that will resonate with countless numbers of women who have dated a loser. An annoyingly chatty, full-of-himself, name-dropping reviewer on Pop Matters by the name of Zachary Houle wrote one of the dumbest critical comments I’ve read in a long time concerning this song: “Despite the fact that some of the tracks are just plain silly (what is, in fact, a “Trip Trap Attack”?) . . .” With that gem, he identifies himself as one of the many males in modern society with exceptionally poor listening skills who are terminally oblivious to the world around them, especially to the women that inhabit that world. Ironically, that’s the subject of the song!
Let’s spell it out for poor Zachary. Kimmy is stuck in a car with a guy who’s full of himself and completely unaware that he’s giving his date the creeps, the yawns or a combination of both. So, we have a woman riding in a car with a guy (a trip), she feels trapped (“I’m stuck in a car with you again.”) and experiences an anxiety attack (“And the things that you said to me/Make me feel like you’re my enemy.”) Got it? Sheesh! Did you ever think of actually listening to the music you’re reviewing?
Sorry, but irresponsible reviewers piss me the fuck off.
“Little Weird” is a good antidote for anger, as it’s a kick-ass rock song supporting the blessed notion of individuality and finding someone who can actually accept that in another person. Full of handclaps, pounding drums and ringing cymbals, this is an under-two-minutes mood lifter that has to make you smile. “Come Back to Me” takes us back to girl-group mode with an appropriately melodramatic lead vocal and high school romance imagery (I want him/nah, I don’t want him). There’s a nice Shangri-la-ish conversation between the two girls that’s only missing the sound of snapping gum to confirm its authenticity.
“Wasting All My Time” is a song with a dominant line that should be the mantra for the billions of stressed-out people trying to negotiate their way through the complexity of modern life: “I’m sick of wasting all my time worrying about things that I have no control of.” The harmonies and guitar counterpoint work well, and the throbbing drums echo the intensity of that “I’m sick of this shit” message. It’s followed by the slightly dissonant chords that open the melodic “Am I the Only One,” a melancholy driver where the power pop feel contradicts lyrics that describe symptoms of loneliness and depression. The album closes with the sexy bass-driven groove of “We’ve Gotta Go,” reminiscent of some of the better stuff the Go-Go’s did in their prime.
After what seemed like an endlessly long period of listening to new releases that weren’t worth the time and energy for a review, Trip Trap Attack has restored my sagging spirits. Florida’s Beach Day is a tight and energetic group with a solid début album that will immediately appear in my list of recommendations. They’ve taken tried-and-true conventions and infused them with contemporary sentiments and genuine feeling, making the music sound as fresh as it must have felt blasting out of those pocket transistor radios perched next to all those beautifully tanned bodies stretched out on the beach at the peak of summer.