Surf music — real surf music — is hard to come by these days. Even when surf music was a thing, it was bastardized by the popular market. For every Dick Dale or Link Wray there was a Jan and Dean or Bruce and Terry. There were middle-of the-roaders, too, like the Beach Boys’ very serviceable hot rod rock, but for pure, twangy, reverb-laden surf instrumentals, you had to go deep.
In the recent past, bands like Man Or Astro Man?, Los Straightjackets, The Vulcanos and others have kept the genre alive. Are hipsters listening to it? Probably not, unless, of course, it’s coupled with some fancy latte variation or low-end craft beer. But the importance of surf music can’t be understated. It offers a connection to the earliest days of rock-‘n’-roll, when Buddy Holly was inventing rockabilly and Chuck Berry hadn’t yet shot any secret videos. It also was one of the few popular music forms that thrived with absolutely no vocals. It functioned as a soundtrack or sorts; no other popular form can claim that.
In keeping with tradition, Jacksonville’s Shoot the Pier has recently released a new, albeit brief, collection of original surf rock on vinyl. For the purposes of this column, we will harken back to their 2011 CD release, Low Hangs the Moon, as well as grab a listen of the new three-song vinyl EP. Shoot the Pier is, mainly, father/daughter team Bill and Ellie Sims, along with various local players who work both in the studio and live with the band. This is what they do.
A listen to Low Hangs the Moon should leave no doubt as to the Sims’ direction. “The Poles” could easily be a Ventures tune, with that familiar twang set against that familiar ’50s gangster groove. Add a little moody synth and some whammy bar bends, and it’s as authentic as one could expect. “Green Room Meditation,” track 2 on Moon, is a bit more spacy, bordering on psychedelic surf. The title track is a thick, beefy number, with distortion and synths filling the spaces. It wanders a bit from the format here, and that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But it’s the least authentic of the bunch. “Surfer Lost,” however, is a wonderfully creepy slow drip of Tarantino-esque Tex-Mex surf. Very nice.
The closer of Low Hangs the Moon is a mellow paddle-out, depicting, as the title suggests, “Emily sitting on her board waiting for one last wave reflecting on the day.” There are even bongos on this track. It’s a nice conclusion to an album that should have been longer. Which brings us to …
The more recent untitled vinyl release. Too short, in my opinion, the EP only features three songs, one of which (Side B) is the aforementioned “Low Hangs the Moon.” But Side A offers two very nice tracks.
“Waves in the Mist” is a smooth surf ballad, with distant, roomy drums and a Dick Dale-ish low-stringed guitar melody. The unpredictable twist at the end of the bridge sets this one off a bit from earlier Shoot the Pier stuff, and it’s a welcome surprise. Maybe this is the wave they’ll be surfing on future recordings.
But of all the songs discussed here, the most-lovely “Missing Summer” is king.
A gorgeous, piano-backed piece with a nice double guitar melody, “Missed Summer” is just, well, gorgeous. Does the piano subtract from the authentic “surf rock” feel? Maybe, but who gives a flip? This is a beautiful, rolling surf song that sets a melancholic tone, like a sweet sunset on a whispering beach somewhere in the back of your mind. OK, that may be a little too sentimental a description, but it’s an easy tune to get lost in.
If you get a chance to see Shoot the Pier live, do so. I plan on it, as I would love to hear this stuff rendered by players in a club. Hopefully a dark, dank club, with a handful of surf music aficionados. If there are any left.
Are you out there?
Listen to or pick up Shoot the Pier at reverbnation.com/shootthepier