I should have seen this coming. There have been plenty of surf cover bands and surf cover albums. I've seen a few covers of modern songs by bands like The Flaming Lips. The New Waves released an album of 80's surf covers, and that was pretty fun. I somehow didn't realize that eventually somebody would come for my teenage years.
And this record is ruthless about it.
There are some "cool" songs on here. Green Day's Basket Case is a song I still enjoy today, even if it's wrapped in a little bit of embarrassing teenage punk phase. The Cranberries' "Dreams" is, in my opinion, one of the best songs to ever hit the commercial airwaves. And those are good covers, but pretty simple conversions as both are pretty guitar heavy.
Most of this album deals in the often embarrassing bubblegum and r&b songs that I may not have sought out at the time, but have peppered the memories of my middle and high school years enough to have very complicated feelings about them. Since these songs were barely rock with very limited guitars, I didn't think they would come back to haunt me in cover form, but here they are.
For instance KC & JoJo's All My Life, which is probably the song I most associate with 6th grade, standing with my hands on the hips of my then-girlfriend from 2 feet apart. My hands felt like they didn't belong there, and I was constantly assessing the nuanced details of how my hands touched it, how much pressure I was exerting. She smelled like baby powder. Looking at her face was too awkward so we excused our embarrassment by bumping into other slowdancing friends. Being extremely vocally and lyrically focused, this song certainly didn't seem like an expected target, but unfortunately it seems those vocal melodies lent themselves surprisingly well, especially with some smart tone choices to add some surf strength, but also to accentuate some pretty, glistening moments. Ugh.... I like it.
Two tracks are soundtrack highlights from 90's megablockbusters. This I can appreciate, as I feel the excess drama of these songs is more embarrassing for the artists than for me.
"I Don't Want to Miss A Thing" strikes me as the the historical moment when Stephen Tyler was no longer the frontman of a killer rock & roll group (Aerosmith's Greatest Hits was actually my first CD), but became an overly-scarfed muppet meme of a person. This cover feels a bit more playful, toning down Tyler's screeches with some gleeful organ bits, but the wind-up to the chorus stirs up appropriately.
"Kiss From A Rose", linked to the campy Joel Schumacher classic (yes, I stand by that), was actually the first song I heard from this, initially part of the annual SG101 member compilation before I had any idea this would be part of a cover album. This is the sole track played by Danny Snyder of The Tomorrowmen, Meshugga Beach Party and Combo Tezeta, and it does stick out a bit from the rest. The cover version cranks up the instrumental portions of the original, taking surprisingly medieval sounds and making them sharp guitar stings. Seal's vocals are switched off between guitar and organ, which is a fun thing to do for a surf cover, but there's a great emphasis put on the "did you know - that when it snows" part that is particularly stirring. I absolutely love the treatment on this track.
Natalie Imbruglia's "Torn" is a less remembered song, but I often think of it as an example of a song that wouldn't exist today. Today's pop songs are all about being strong, this was a song about vulnerability. No autotune, in fact her voice frequently cracks, which is such a nice addition to the song. I love this song now, and I loved it in 6th grade. I think I even had the CD single, though the novelty of the line "lying naked on the floor" was not something I was too mature to get excited over. The cover here is a nice, subtle shift. There's a peppy Bo Diddley beat added at the beginning, and the guitar in the chorus does swing a little bit more but still sounds a little bittersweet. It's more fun, but it's a fading fun, like stretching out a last hour at the beach before heading home for the weekend. And I think that works nicely with the tune.
I really want to emphasize how this compilation did not take the easy road. Half of these songs were r&b from an era when there was still plenty of rock to choose from. Mariah Carey's "Always Be My Baby" is another in category of guilty pleasure that I never thought I'd hear surf-styled and it, like most, feels pretty natural. "My Boo" is one of those songs you probably haven't devoted a thought to in a decade -- I don't think I ever knew it was by somebody called INOJ -- but I actually think it's one of the best tracks on here. The original has a pretty, frankly, bad drum machine track and the surfbeat really brings it to life.
The only one where I think they flew a little too close to the sun is "Pony". The weirdo sex anthem that found a second life in a tumblr account loses a lot of charm when it's leaning on its melody. The real draw for that song is the outlandish and cartoonish sampling for Timbaland's beat, mostly built around what sounds like a vocoded frog. That frog makes the song, and I think this is the only example on the album that really just makes me want to hear the original.
Clearly, I found this album to be a thrill even while it poked at embarrassing memories. Maybe you have to be a millennial to like it. I'd like to think that the pop of the 90's had a lot of merit compared to today's songs, but maybe that's what you start saying when you're 35 and you've largely divorced your music tastes from the zeitgeist. In any case I hope these guys (I'm not sure if Now That's What I call Surf is a band name or an album name, but it I have it on good authority that their names are Tony and Adam) do make a volume 2 at some point so I can spill out my mid-pubescent years into a review again.