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 1960s —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-did’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 (or 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 her voice ensures that she’s going to get all the attention anyway. Third, I can’t sing lead worth shit, but I’m excellent at 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 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 on 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 in 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 a 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.