Surf Vietnam - Funambulism
2015 was an interesting year in music, and specifically, in lyrics. Artists like Father John Misty and Courtney Barnett rose to the surface of pop music’s murky underbelly with straightforward, unpretentious, often humorous lyrics. See Fr. John Misty’s Chateau Lobby #4 (in C for Two Virgins): I wanna take you in the kitchen/Lift up your wedding dress someone was probably murdered in/ So bourgeoisie to keep waiting/ Dating for twenty years just feels pretty civilian…” or Barnett’s Avant Gardener: “My hands are shaky/ My knees are weak/I can’t seem to stand on my own two feet/ I’m breathing but I'm wheezing, feel like I'm emphysemin’/ My throat feels like a funnel filled with Weetabix and kerosene and/ Oh no, next thing I know/ They call up triple O/ I’d rather die than owe the hospital till I get old/ I get adrenalin straight to the heart/ I feel like Uma Thurman post-overdose and kick start/ Reminds me of the time when I was really sick and I had too much psuedoephedrine and I couldn’t sleep at night/Halfway down high street, Andy looks ambivalent/He’s probably wondering what I’m doing getting in an ambulance/ The paramedic thinks I'm clever ‘cause I play guitar/ I think she’s clever ‘cause she stops people dying/ Anaphylactic and super hypochondriac/ Should’ve stayed in bed today, I much prefer the mundane.” Could I have used a smaller song section? Yes. Is this too fun to pass up? Yes.
Boston’s Surf Vietnam have continued this trend of tongue-in-cheek wittiness and run-on rambunctiousness into 2016, and their debut album Funambulism is a fantastic entry into the indie scene’s musical, and more to my point, lyrical, frontier.
Songs like “Shelby” are a good example: “Shelby smiles and holds back a grimace/counts down the hours and minutes/ she’s working in the ice cream game/ she’s been here since she was 11/ labor laws don’t phase uncle Kevin/ he hired her on mother’s day/ hey!...scoops and cones/ baby, they don’t break her bones/ but she’s feeling so alone” into the wonderful cheesy syncopated chorus:
Shelby’s going back going back
Shelby’s going back going back
going back, back to community college
This album is fun as shit. What appear to be thrown together, blatant, direct lyrics are, upon further inspection, carefully composed treasures. Check out the perfectly imperfect rhymes between “grimace” and “minutes” and “eleven” and “Kevin” with the throwaway third line that oh yeah just HAPPENS to create unease by not ending the phrase with a fourth line.
These dudes know their shit, and they’re not dicks about it. There are no twelve minute jams, no guitar solos, no scatting – the songs are dense. Like diamonds. The band, consisting of drummer Adam Salameh, bassist Joe Campbell, guitarist Adrian Aiello, and vocalist/pianist John Godfrey, understands their influences, even using “Ben Folds” as a Bandcamp hashtag. The Ben Folds comparison is inescapable, due equally to Godfrey’s jaunty keyboard skills, high vocal tessitura, and goddamn perfect lyrics. See track #2 “Max (Doesn’t Play Guitar), which ends with a gleeful lead vocal singing “I will have the last laugh on your bastards” as backing vocals punctuate through with quick punch-like perfect rhymes from earlier in the song. I’m trying to both not make this review too long and not give any shit away so just please, listen to the song. I won’t quote any more lyrics even though I literally just want to copy and paste every song, not say anything else, and give the album a 5/5.
The creative team behind Surf Vietnam is the duo between Godfrey and Salameh, who have been writing and collaborating together since 2014. This is their first full length album, and their previous releases have been short – a two song EP Paleo as Fuck and a string of singles. Their effort is wonderfully apparent; the album sounds great, thanks in part to recording engineers Brian E. King and Doug Batcheider, mixing engineer Ducky Carlisle, and mastering by Mike Quinn. The collaboration between so many local MA artists gives the songs a charming locality, an ethereal identity which isn’t palpable in the music but is somehow an aura around the album’s sound – the kind of mood in early Sufjan and Bloc Party’s Silent Alarm. What I’m trying to say is that the album sounds like its creators were friends, and elements of Boston itself pop up here and there: the tough DIY independence, the fuck-you brazenness of the lyrics, and the warmth of spring coming through.
Perhaps that sounds too artsy fartsy and random to make sense, but let me try and explain it this way: Boston winters suck. They’re hard and cold and long. Like 11 months long. Like all of my 4 years in college were winter. Winter starts October and goes until like May. When spring comes in it’s fucking nuts. We all put shorts on as soon as it gets above 50 and the city comes alive with rowboats and sparrows and cherry blossoms and Harpoon IPA.
This album’s springtime comes through in its sixth track, “Kyle’s Song,” which artfully describes death without frills and beauty: “Spread your wings and fly/ I regret you died.”
Funambulism is an album about a protagonist battling his ego, and this glues the songs together just as firmly as Godfrey’s artful rhymes and (how did I forget to mention this) the virtuosic chord changes, tempo shifts, and other forms of musical prowess displayed by the band. The album starts fast, with a shitload of words, quick witticisms, a splash of humour, and around track #4 “Stucco” (Toxic ghost of my past/ I will purge, I will fast/ bitter nights/ hardened heart/ here I am, torn apart”) March comes, and you realize that holy fuck this isn’t a joke album, this isn’t a throwaway laugh, this is an opus. Godfrey writes with empathy and passion and unfathomable skill and, yes, humour (“after 6pm, she wants me in a tuxedo/ I’m a fickle man, I can’t control my libido”).
The rest of the album is all rowboats and sparrows and cherry blossoms and Harpoon IPA.
1. Endless Mike
2. Max (Doesn't Play Guitar)
5. Cacophonous Me
6. Kyle's Song
9. The Feels
10. October Baseball