Normal American Sex (Surfer Blood)
With Band in Heaven and This Heart Electric
Respectable Street, West Palm Beach
Saturday, July 16, 2011
Better than: Your average cover band.
With all four members of Surfer Blood onstage, Saturday's performance at Respectable Street had the appearance of so many of the past for this local indie-rock success story. However, the guys called themselves Normal American Sex for the evening and played zero material from Astro Coast -- not even "Swim." They opted instead for a set of songs heavy on their favorite artists -- the Pixies, Modest Mouse, and Pavement (three songs) -- that gave the night a "peek behind the curtain" feel.
Three of the covers have popped up regularly in Surfer Blood's sets over the past year or so, but all of them can be interpreted as influential moments that helped lay out the basic aesthetic for the band. Judging by the extreme command of each, nothing about the night felt impromptu. Rather, these are songs they -- and the audience -- could sing in their sleep.
Originally released on 1989's Slay Tracks (1933-1969) EP, "Box Elder" is one of Pavement's oldest songs and as sunny as any in their pre-Brighten the Corners work. Lyrically, it's emblematic of a person who sees greater things beyond his own town and drives that point home quickly -- especially right in the heart of J.P. Pitts' vocal range. The other two Pavement moments of the night came from the much darker Slanted and Enchanted album. Guitarist Thomas Fekete handled vocals for "Zürich Is Stained," which serves as a perfect exercise in bizarre guitar tunings (or a lack of tuning) and understated brilliance. Whereas "In the Mouth of a Desert" is the sort of post-Pixies, slacker punk anthem that about 25,000 bands have tried to rewrite for the past two decades.
Speaking of the Pixies, "Gigantic" thrilled and brought another guest vocalist to the stage for Deal's half of the vocals. Most Surfer Blood songs (from Astro Coast, anyhow) aren't riding as strong of a bass line as this song, but it'll be telling to see how hitting the road with Black Francis and Deal will affect things.
Of all of the night's songs, including several promising new ones that are as-yet-unnamed and one featuring vocals by bassist Kevin Williams, Modest Mouse's "Trailer Trash" was exceptional. Finding a way to justify a six-minute pop song is something Surfer Blood has already experimented with, and it's moments like this slowly intensifying moment from 1997's The Lonesome Crowded West that can be quite instructive. Hint: Raw guitar heroics are useful.
As for our openers, the Band in Heaven (conflict-of-interest alert: Tambourine player Ryan Burk is our intern) has filled out the lineup with a bassist, which has solidified the live attack. Interestingly, the volume of Ates Isildak's darkwave outfit hasn't diminished, but the distortion has lessened by quite a bit. From Miami, This Heart Electric -- AKA acoustic-toting Ricardo Guerrero -- snagged drummer Jordan Pettingill as a drummer for the night. The pair interacted well as the mustached Guerrero sang his heart out, often letting go of words to just let his voice resound through the vintage mike.
The crowd: A lot of spasmotic dancing from the Band in Heaven's set onward.
Overheard: "IT'S WHAT I WANT!" from the crowd during "In the Mouth of a Desert."
Random detail: $3 cover.
Normal American Sex's Set List
Hey Sandy (Polaris)
Box Elder (Pavement)
Zurich Is Stained (Pavement)
In the Mouth of a Desert (Pavement)
Trailer Trash (Modest Mouse)