Review Summary: Egotones' self titled effort courageously side-steps a straight homage to the genre's golden years by indulging their tendency for carnivál, spaghetti-western silliness, and thus creating this years most innovative yet authentic surf record.
I often find myself reminded when exploring modern music, particularly ones of the retroactive persuasion, of a little gag Jimi Hendrix pulled on his debut. This slowed-down, acid drenched little quip drove the surf community up the walls upon it's discovery.
"And you'll never hear surf music again..."
Though the intent of the sample has been debated and cleared up as, essentially, Jimi's off hand dismissal of Dick Dale's critical illness, it has still cleverly served as an Occam's Razor when it comes to sorting through the droves of retro bands. It helps me ask questions like, "Could you see Jimi liking this?", "Is this innovative?", "Is this a genre where innovation is an imperative?", and most importantly "Have I a become such a jaded prick that I have to read the labels before I listen to the record and ask my mental projection of Jimi Hendrix's opinion afterwards?"
But thankfully, Oregon surf darlings Egotones have released a debut that not only has me swimmingly optimistic for the band, but also a genre that is often decried as one with no need for new life because it is so largely based in nostalgia.
Right off the bat, the silky smooth mix and bass-heavy production lends itself to the tremolo picking and psychedelic spasticity you most likely expected. Everything sounds as analog as can be. The band dishes out generous helpings of cinematic, spaghetti-flavored riffs that appeals as obviously as it does do fans of stylish film scores as it does to surf music aficionados.
"Dennis Trainhopper" and "Tako Jon" feature fluid, graceful tempo shifts and haunting instrumentation that inspire a dark carnival of crusty characters leading the listener through various exotic treacheries.
"Michael Go Home" cleverly throws in some banjo and strings just at the right time against the twanging guitar lines, and fades beautifully into "Modesto," one of the best tracks on the album.
"Modesto" and "Robo Smuggler" are easily two of the most pleasurable spaghetti-ripping songs of the year, and features some of the most intricate instrumentation on the album.
Things take a dreary, yet welcome turn on "Fade You Later," where for the first time, the band takes a plodding, contemplative pace. It's a steady, slow burn, like the name implies, then breaks the tension halfway through.
Similarly, closer "TAARGUS" adopts an unrelentingly dark waltz accompanied by sweet, delicate guitar to create a deep and highly believable atmosphere.
The way this debut maintains a sense that you are at the same carnival, but visiting different scenes or movements within larger dances can't be overstated. Over several listens the album reveals a sense of cohesion and intent. I can't say for certain that there is a story here, but there is certainly an arc, and listeners will ultimately have to decide for themselves why or how songs like "TAARGUS" relate to the "Street Urchin" suite or what it means to "Bogus Your Face."
As the albums final piano notes fade, a moment of reversed speech and flanged feedback pronounce the end of the journey, and our ears wash up on the shores of the third dimension. If I were to ask myself right now how that Occam's Razor fell when listening to this record, despite my admittance above that it is a jaded and even elitist observation to even consider when listening to modern music...
... Is that Jimi Hendrix probably would have sat through it at least once. It's got spunk enough, and psychedelia a plenty. But now, modern surf acts like Egotones, Tijuana Panthers, La Luz, and Bombón have me asking myself even more disturbing questions. When the initial wave broke decades ago, did anybody question whether or not the best wave was yet to come? Or how long would it take?
Surely they didn't imagine surf music would take fifty odd years to perfect, quite the opposite, but there was also very little chance of anyone conceiving a surf rock record quite like this back then. And even if they did, getting to sound as good as this one would have taken someone like Eddie Kramer or Bob Erin to wrangle in some of the subtle swells and twinkles scattered throughout the darkness.
If you're looking for something stylish and retro, but decidedly not-your-parents style of surf rock, I highly recommend this, and catching them live.