With Pavement on tour and records by Superchunk and Versus due to hit whatever record shelves remain by year's end, nostalgia pervades indie rock's air. It's not just because of the old-timers getting their bands back together, either. A healthy chunk of new, hip bands find themselves pining for the good old days, in one way or another.
Often enough, it's musical: The caustic, block-rocking beats that keep Sleigh Bells ringing, for instance, might be the state of that particular art, but they sound like the sorts of bomb blasts a young Rick Rubin would've thrown behind Toni Basil's "Mickey." Performers tarred by the chillwave brush—Neon Indian, Memory Tapes, Toro y Moi—use old equipment to recall the electric dreams of their (or their older sibling's) youth. As for meat-and-potatoes guitar rock, it's a coast-to-coast retro craze, from the fuzzy pop of San Francisco's Best Coast to the Ragged Horse meanderings of Ridgewood, N.J.'s Real Estate. For those bands, it's not always only the music. With varying degrees of subtlety and success, the songs and sounds of such acts evoke the tunes of the past and the memories of carefree, sunny days spent doing absolutely nothing.
Add Dustin Payseur's Beach Fossils to the list. Payseur, a former North Carolina resident, began Beach Fossils as a one-man operation; he wrote, performed and recorded the songs on his self-titled debut after relocating to Brooklyn in 2009. Since the recording, though, Payseur has assembled an honest-to-goodness band. Not only is the name a brief, perfect encapsulation of summers long since passed, but Payseur's lyrics are the sort of lines that make you stare longingly from office windows: "And I open my eyes and everything's blue/ from the top of the skies to underneath you," he sings on "Golden Years." For "Daydream," he offers us one: "And we go outside when the morning's dark/ and we fall in the grass in an open park."
Thing is, Beach Fossils' summer fun carries an aftertaste that separates Payseur from his peers. With peppy groups like Best Coast and Wavves, it's all Pop Rocks and Pixy Stix, cranked to 11 (unless wishing your cat could talk is an angst-worthy worry). Real Estate and the folkier Woods wrap their rangy tunes in smoked-out, beer-soaked bonhomie. But while Beach Fossils might talk that talk (and even includes the actual sound of waves lapping at the shore as gulls fly overhead), Payseur's songs often sound skittish and stark. Imagine The Go-Betweens essaying a slightly less solemn version of "Cattle and Cane." Musically, this is nostalgia filtered through the bottom of a shot glass. Guitar leads scratch against each other. The drumming is sharp, tinny and brittle. Singing voices are smothered in static, hovering in the foreground like bleach-white ghosts. Coupled with cavernous lo-fi production, these songs suggest misanthropic pre-punk and post-punk groups—not exactly bands that revel in talk of sunshine and pretty girls.
It works: The friction of such harsh and pronounced textures leavens the sentiments of these tunes with just the right amount of wistfulness. Though the words portray a certain wide-eyed naiveté ("We get lost sometimes/ but the reality will keep us sane," for instance), the pictures painted represent the unavoidable truth that even our most cherished memories carry a certain amount of regret.
The jury's still out as to whether Payseur meant for this to happen. Sometimes, the choices made when a band records its first songs are born of expediency and convenience, not artistic intent. Tunes similar to these put to tape in a more professional, "cleaner" fashion—less haze, more focus, more takes—could easily turn the sublime into the subpar. Right now, though, with thoughts of homeroom and falling leaves closer than anyone would like to admit, the bittersweet nothings that Beach Fossils whisper are a most appropriate soundtrack.