Review Summary: The imperfect sound of the summer from punk cult heroes
California punks Culture Abuse are one of the most beloved products of the US' underground music scene. From being personally invited onto a stacked bill at Finsbury Park in London by headliners, Green Day, to tours with the likes of Nothing, The Story So Far, Tigers Jaw and Touche Amore, the band have experienced a meteoric rise from their DIY past. Now signed to Epitaph, it's no surprise, that during this rise the band's sound has changed a little. Their debut The Day Dreams of Nothing
is a scatty semi-grunge, semi-hardcore EP, with near a unintelligible vocal performance; the follow up Spray Paint the Dog
continued much in the same vein, but with more polish, poise and structure, 'Nicotine' being a personal favourite. From there, the band has moved to sunnier pastures; taking on the sonic palate of summery west-coast hardcore, their debut LP and cult hit Peach
pulled the band in a cleaner, brighter direction, drawing comparisons to contemporaries like Angel Du$t, and incorporating more melody into their sound. Their newest effort, however, feels like a complete transformation; from grunge-core weirdos to a band determined on pumping out summery, indie-punk hits - the end product of the direction their debut LP began to pull in. The question is, do Culture Abuse carry off their new sound well, or does their sophomore effort leave the listener craving the rowdier sounds of their back catalogue"
The answer is, well, less than clean cut. The band barely holds on to any of the punk hallmarks that were so present on Peach
, with lead singer David Kelling's vocal performance being the most contained and melodic it's ever been. The guitar tone is fuzzier, less aggressive, and the record feels altogether more laid back, with only lead single 'Calm E' really seeming reminiscent of the bulk of their past work. That said, this track is very strong, and really does the band's slightly punkier side justice. The opening lead guitar riff feels suitably odd, perhaps a callback to the discordant weirdness of their earliest EPs, and the chorus call of 'Call me, call me, call me, Calm E' is just about the catchiest hook the band has put together. This, coupled with the feelgood flourishes of the track and chunky guitar riffing in the hook, make it a standout song in the track listing. 'Dip', another one of the promotional tracks for the record carries on in the same vein - a little more laid back, but once again it has a strong hook to it, and the simplistic lyricism of "time keeps moving like a big slug, i get squished like a big bug" adds some gently humorous charm to the chorus on one of the more well rounded and constructed tracks on the album. Songs like these are where Culture Abuse really shine - with a neat, catchy chorus, a simple but effective structure, and nostalgic, whimsical lyrics.
There are several other strong tracks dotted throughout the track listing - the eponymous 'Bay Dream's infectious vocal melodies act as a great opener to the record, whilst 'S'Why' feels like the band has been taking notes from Tigers Jaw, taking on a more mellow and moody tone, and helping break up the brightness of the first half of the LP with some much needed tonal variety. 'Dave's Not Here (I Got The Stuff Man)' channels the lo-fi garage punk of label-mates WAVVES, and 'Dozy' has a suave-alt-rock feel to it that acts as a welcome throwback to Weezer's early work.
Positives aside, the album is not without weaker tracks; 'Rats in the Walls' is an altogether fun song, following a narrative around a young woman named 'Judy' and her love-hate relationship with moving to the city. Much like many tracks on the album, the hook is solid and catchy, but the it's marred by some slightly awkward lead guitar work that feels a little out of place, and doesn't fit into the mix well, feeling overproduced and distracting from an otherwise solid song. 'Bee Kind To The Bugs', the record's second single, mimics 'Calm E's weirdly dissonant lead guitar sound, and whilst the carefree lyrics encouraging self love contain some of the record's strongest lyrical moments, the track becomes somewhat repetitive, as the first and second verses are near identical. Moreover, the chorus melody is identical to the opening riff, and leaves the impression that the track had more potential than was necessarily shown off in the final cut. The other two tracks, 'California Speedball' and 'Bluebird On My Shoulder' are fine
. That's about all there is to say - they don't do much that other tracks hadn't already covered, and whilst a few more solid songs is nothing to complain about, they feel a little redundant in a tracklist already packed full of summery, laid back indie-punk.
That said, for a foray into the gentler side of things, Bay Dream
isn't a half bad effort from Culture Abuse. It shows the band making progression away from their weirder, but slightly more anonymous roots into a sound that they could, in the future, carve out and call their own. Whilst they show key strengths in the basics of songwriting, constructing some great choruses, setting a mood well and knowing when to bask in simplicity, the record leaves a little to be desired in terms of changes of pace and variety that prevent it from being a truly excellent or consistent listen. Criticisms aside, the album's infectious, sunny optimism makes it a surefire candidate for a top summer album for those with an interest in the indie-punk side of things, and provides Culture Abuse with a strong sophomore record to build from in the future.