Review: Surf Curse abrasively experiments with smoothness on ‘Magic Hour’
Top Track: “Fear City”
Each of Surf Curse’s LPs have featured the band on the cover, but “Magic Hour” — the group’s fourth full-length release and only project since 2019’s “Heaven Surrounds You” — is the first time the portrait has included more contributors than founding drummer, vocalist and frontman Nick Rattigan and guitarist Jacob Rubeck. The addition of Henry Dillon’s bass and Noah Kholl’s extra guitar heralds a significant shift toward, in Rattigan’s words, a “milky'' feel, antithetical to the lo-fi, post-punk sound that has characterized the band’s best work for years, including the perennially viral “Freaks.” However, this familiar sonic signature is far from abandoned, flaring up on lead-off track “Arrow” and lead single “TVI,” scraps of the old sound scattered throughout an LP that is otherwise striving for reinvention. What emerges is a split record, with songs alternately violent and velvet, coming off as either charming or aggravating but always inconsistent.
The opener, “Arrow,” is deceitful. It sounds exactly like one of many album tracks off 2017’s “Nothing Yet,” and an unwitting listener might be duped into expecting the next songs to follow suit. “Cathy” pleasantly surprises. The milk that Rattigan speaks of flows freely here, as the newly doubled guitars and softly played bass lay on a fuller sound reminiscent of the dream pop of the late 80s and 90s. This pattern of harsh, teenage-dirtbag connoting punk followed by britpop and a Cocteau Twins homage is a theme throughout the record, but the two styles are not always as cleanly divided as in the beginning. Songs like “Sugar,” “Lost Honor” and “Unwell” achieve a synthesis, combining bright guitars and smooth vocals in their verses with raucous riffs and screams in their respective choruses and bridges, blending the two charmingly. “Unwell” is a particularly interesting departure — at just over six minutes, it’s the band’s longest track to date, and eschews the standard pop song structure that has helped so much of their work to feel as tight and fun as it does. One of the strangest moments on the entire record comes when a string quartet and piano break into the mix in the song’s final minute. While this interruption is novel, it doesn’t add much of anything to the song’s appeal. These strings reappear to better, more subtle effect on “Little Rock ‘n’ Roller,” the high watermark for tracks featuring Rattigan’s new, silky style. It leans into the group’s strengths by coming in with a catchy hook and not overstaying its welcome, and the falsetto vocals scratch the listener’s brain in a way many have come to expect from Surf Curse while still playing around with new ideas and elements. The record’s stand-out track is “Fear City.” Its brass instruments and monotone, near spoken-word vocals are more evocative of Cake than of anything the band has done until now, on this release or any other. Surprisingly, it works wonderfully, joining a refreshing sound with creative lyrics, a bit of a rarity for Rattigan.
“Magic Hour” is an occasionally fascinating mixed bag. An evolution that doesn’t go quite far enough to be a reinvention, its primary success is that it demonstrates the group’s willingness to develop new sonic ideas. There are sprouts of novelty here, and it will be exciting to watch what Surf Curse does with them in the coming years. At least, for now, we have a few fun songs.
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