By Surprise - Mountain Smashers (2011)
Maybe this is too controversial a statement for someone like me to make, but traditional indie rock is pretty much a dead horse. I’m talking about real, straight up, authentic indie rock made by dudes with guitars and drums and a singer who sucks and is really frustrated and has a lot to say even though they all claim not to care about anything. I’m talking about those indie rock Bands with a capitol B — the ones that you could hear on record or see on a stage and just be stunned by the brilliance that just seemed to flow through them without any effort whatsoever. You know you’re listening to a real indie rock band when you start to think about how you could make this music, if you really set your mind to it. Unfortunately, you probably can’t, and I can’t either. The 90s were full of these bands — Pavement, Guided By Voices, Sebadoh — and the 80s had their fair share too. These guys weren’t punk, or hip, or anything really. They were just cool and everyone knew it.
What happened to those bands? I absolutely love music in the 2000s, believe me, maybe even more than any other decade, but I can’t help but think that the age of the Great American Indie Rock Band is over. Think about it. Pavement reunited for some shows and everyone felt nostalgic — even kids like me who were barely in school when Pavement was still making records. We were nostalgic for an era, one that no longer exists.
These are the musings that dominated my thoughts when I first heard Mountain Smashers, the debut full-length record by New Jersey’s By Surprise. As one of the most recent additions to the increasingly impressive Topshelf Records roster, it would be easy to peg this band as yet another emo revival band and dismiss them just as easily. Incidentally, without knowledge of their affiliation with that Massachusetts-based label, it wouldn’t be hard to assume that By Surprise was another one of those lo-fi indie rock revival bands that seem to be so dime-a-dozen these days. To be honest, I can’t get into many of those kinds of bands. To me, groups like Yuck sound more like Idlewild and those other lame British bands who tried to cop the sound of American indie rock back in the 90s than they do Sebadoh. But even to the most casual listener, By Surprised is clearly neither of these things.
This isn’t to say that the band’s influences aren’t apparent. They wear the style and lo-fi sensibility of Pavement on their sleeves, and melodic allusions to 90s indie rock pop up throughout the span of the record. Guided By Voices is another clear inspiration to the sound of Mountain Smashers. In fact, my first-ever experience with the band was through their cover of Guided By Voices “Motor Away”, an absolute highlight on the Biff Swenson Cover Up compilation from a few months ago. They do the emo thing too, with obligatory nods to the likes of CaP’n Jazz and even more recent groups such as Algernon Cadwallader, but the brilliance of this band and this record lies in their seemingly innate ability to channel all of these influences in a way that has never been done with such expressive and positive energy.
From that first chiming power pop guitar riff in Mountain Smashers’ opening track “Books By Thoreau”, the listener is drawn in. Soon thereafter a choir of joyful singers, each echoing his own inner Tim Kinsella or Stephen Malkmus, takes over the song and transforms it into a sweeping singalong of a tremendous size. Like some sort of lo-fi Fang Island song, ”Books By Thoreau” combines musical virtuosity with genuine and heartfelt emotion. No other song on Mountain Smashers reaches the sheer size of the opener, but in a way this is to the band’s advantage. By busting out their biggest musical guns at the beginning of the record, they suck the listener in immediately. However, without more material of equal or near-equal quality, the album would come across as top-heavy. Thankfully, Mountain Smashers is stocked full of incredible tunes. “Realometer”, the album’s most overt pop moment, skirts the line between chaotic emo and lo-fi indie rock, with a CaP’n Jazz-like verse and delightfully twinkly guitars contrasting against the catchy chorus hook. Although “Realometer” finds itself grounded more in twinkle daddy territory, other tracks find the band exploring a more traditional rock side. The penultimate track “Hanging Out With Wendy In Sulikland”, the harmony-laden “Last Chance To See”, and the wonderfully catchy “So Long And Thanks For All the Sharkjaws” are great examples of this; echoes of power pop and even Ted Leo-style pop-punk reverberate around throughout their short durations. For a bunch of dudes who like to yell, By Surprise are certainly melodically gifted, and nearly every track on the album features an instantly memorable hook or chorus.
In my opinion, one of the best things about this album are the vocals. Most of the album is sung with raucously shouted gang vocals, which work to produce those perfectly skewed harmonies that in the case of tracks like “$600 Exorcism” and the aforementioned “Books By Thoreau”, create defining moments on the record. The near omnipresence of the gang vocals also provides for some gorgeous and critical quieter moments. Whenever the gang vocals drop out and the lead singer takes over, the listener really gets to focus in on what is actually being said. It’s one thing to shout along with your friends, but to miss the inspiring and clever lyrical side of many of these songs would be unfortunate. These brief moments of quiet within each energetic punk song are some of the best on the album, and while not all of the songs on Mountain Smashers feature such moments, the one’s that do are all the better for it.
When this record errs, it’s usually forgivable. The LCD Soundsystem-referencing “Daggermouth Is Playing At My House” starts out slowly and awkwardly, but eventually builds up and explodes into yet another high-tempo singalong. “Fountain Splashers” is a little less lucky, and while the band strives for a “Stop Breathing”-style Pavement sound, the slow pace makes it come off as a little underwhelming. Thankfully, although the closing track “Direct Loans” is structured in the same way and moves along at a similarly slow clip, it feels much more heartfelt. The heart-on-sleeve story about the evolution of the band and the woes of the singer’s family makes for a truly moving and fitting closing track. Finally, the band comes crashing back in for the last minute, which is punctuated by emotive screams. The result? Utter catharsis.
I’ve been trying to place what it is about By Surprise that I feel sets them apart, and I think I’ve finally done it. Whenever I write music, I strive to write words that I can sing with all of my heart and energy, even if I need to shout to get the feeling of the words conveyed. To me, By Surprise represents a perfection of this style. They care a lot, and I can tell. Maybe if I tried a little harder, I could make something like this. Maybe By Surprise just reinvigorated my love for real, raw indie rock. It’s been quite a while, but I think that I’ll be thanking them for it for even longer.
- Books By Thoreau
- Mostly Harmless
- Last Chance to See
- Fountain Splashers
- $600 Dollar Exorcism
- So Long And Thanks For All the Sharkjaws
- Daggermouth Is Playing At My House
- Hanging Out With Wendy In Sulikland
- Direct Loans
Best Tracks: “Books By Thoreau”, “Realometer”, “Direct Loans”
Download HERE for $8.00 at Topshelf Records (I don’t feel comfortable posting a free download link for a band that is still relatively unknown. Give them your money please! Otherwise a simple google search of their record will probably suffice.)