Susan SurfTone's "Shore"
Surf music was the gateway drug that lured loads of American teens into the rock wars back in the '60s, and Susan SurfTone was one of 'em -- unusual for a girl back then. (I'm not saying it's right, or that her guitar prowess is some kind of anomaly; I'm just stating a fact. I'll also say that I saw Joan Jett wipe the floor with Iggy at the Palladium in Dallas back in '80. Rock, and rock _guitar_, hath no gender. So there.)
Myself, after I got over trying to imitate the drummer on the Surfaris' "Wipe Out" back around 6th grade, I always kind of looked askance at surf guitarists. Those clean, albeit reverb-laden, tones didn't _move_ me the way distortion and blues-based raunch did; why, most surf guitarists wouldn't even bend a string more than a half-step, most of the time. I started thinking differently when I saw the late Robin Sylar (whom I mistook for Cowhide Cole from KNON's rockabilly show when I heard him speak) do his "Surfabilly" set at Borders when I was moonlighting there around '97, and started connecting some of the dots between the minor key exoticism of Dick Dale with stuff that was more familiar, like John Lee Hooker. With Shore, her _eighth_ full-length (most of 'em released in Europe, go fig), Susan helps to connect some more of those dots.
For you see, Susan's far from a formulaic surf-guitar gal; in fact, purists might scratch their heads listening to parts of this record and wonder if she isn't actually using a li'l distortion here and there. The title track starts out with the classic "Gloria" chord progression (garage-surf?) played by bass and organ before Susan takes off on a classic double-stop-laden Kingsmen-via-Kinks ride, albeit more controlled and less frenetic than either its Yank or Brit precursors. "Jade" is a more archetypal surf number, with the buildup drum roll swelling up under held chords, before Susan gets down to business. (Lately it seems like I'm hearing echoes of this sound in all the new young bands I dig: Spacebeach, Fungi Girls, Red 100's. What is it about this sound that makes it so timeless?) Then on "Tide," Susan unashamedly kicks on the fuzztone as if to say, "Why not?"
My own fave track on the album is "Compression," which sounds like nothing so much as an early Talking Heads song in search of a singer, and indeed, Susan 'fesses up to digging "late '70s/early '80s new wave/punk" as well as the Velvets. "Agate" has the same vibe, and reminds me of the way a lot of bands at the ass-end of the '70s were evoking the early '60s as a way of, um, reaffirming their faith in the innocent spirit of those days. Shore's not that kind of nostalgia trip, although you can frug to a toon like "Chance" if you're motivated that way. You get the sense that surf is Susan's native tongue, and any other musical material she wants to use is going through that filter first.
The album's ace in the hole is a seven-minute version of the Doors' "Riders On the Storm," which reveals how much of that SoCal band's mysterioso vibe was borrowed from surf music -- it's not that big of a jump from Robbie Krieger's flamenco roots to Dick Dale's Arabisms, or from Ray Manzarek's Vox organ to a surf band's Farfisa. Dig, too, the way Susan interpolates the melody from "Pipeline" in the middle of "Riders." What's most striking about Shore is that it's not a party record -- more of a listening album, with an air of moody melancholy hiding behind the thumping surf beat.