It’s fairly easy to write off a group like Beach Fossils upon the first impression. While we can’t judge books by their cover, those sleeves are designed to give you the most concise definition of its contents, so there must be some merit. A cursory glance at the group reveals exactly what you need to know about them. These are four dudes from Brooklyn dressed in thrift shop finest and baseball caps. They produce lo-fi, Yo La Tengo inflected indie rock-and-droll with whispery vocals and enough irony to make Malkmus look sincere. They’re another group of stoned hipsters talking about sadness, parties, and drugs. Fortunately, while there is definitely truth in this initial assertion, their most recent LP, Somersault, goes a long way to suggest there is more to them that surface. Not much more, mind you, but more.
When put in the context of its peers, which would include DIIV, Yuck and Deerhunter, Somersault is a perfectly adequate record. It does exactly what it says on the tin and very little more than that. It’s all by numbers stuff with a handful of elevated cuts, like the opening track, ‘This Year’. This is a breezy, easy going little ditty with a great deal of charm. The main strength of this element of the album is the use of strings and horns. They’re colourful and lyrical and add a depth to what could otherwise be background music. There is a conflict inherent in their sound between the bright Summer-y instrumentation and the drab, laboured vocals from Dustin Payseur. This isn’t an interesting voice and it gets less interesting the more time you spend with it. This contrast between the monotonous and the sunny is well worn and doesn’t really have much more to give. When you’re stuck in these parts of the disc, things drag more than they should. Even at 34 minutes, this record feels overlong at times. The worst culprit for this is ‘Be Nothing’, which does have some merit but extends itself too far and becomes unwelcome.
At two points though, the band does something a lot more interesting. There are two guests on the album: rapper Cities Aviv and Rachel Goswell of Slowdive. When these two arrive, they help the band bring out this surprisingly deep well of untapped potential. Goswell appears as a guest on ‘Tangerine’. It’s a solid piece in own right, but when her vocal lands in the mix, it transcends itself. The music seamlessly fits her persona and is suitably dramatic in a lush way. This is the kind of performance that grants the album a substantial amount of goodwill. Crucially it uses that momentum to build the real standout, ‘Rise’. The indie chic veneer drops suddenly and a crisp old school hip hop beat takes the fore. Jazzy horns descend into the mix and come at you from all directions. By the time Cities Aviv and his laid back style, which neatly mirrors Payseur’s, enter the track’s already won you over. It’s a beat with soul and sorrow that it’s impossible not to get completely wrapped up in it. What makes these tracks work so well is the fact that they are still fundamentally Beach Fossils songs. While they have bent the definition slightly, they still retain their identity. They’re willing to step back and use themselves as a framework for other artists to make something beautiful, which is so commendable.
When they slightly sidestep our expectations of them, they uncover a trove of genuine intrigue. So even though Somersault isn’t a terribly special record, there are moments in it of real cleverness and quality. Let’s hope they realise this in time for the next outing. Will Murphy