The debut record Mountain Smashers from New Jersey’s By Surprise is — like a lot of stuff gaining buzz these days — a melting pot of ’90s indie rock styles. If the labels Deep Elm and Jade Tree mean anything to you, it’s probably a safe bet that you’ll love this record.
Growing up, music fans seem to shed their early listening habits as if they’re something to be ashamed of. We’re all guilty of doing it, but sometimes when your back is turned a group of talented bands keep carving out and pushing forward these genres. Then a record like “Mountain Smashers” falls into your hands, and you remember what a blast this stuff (when done well) really is. It fuses the math riffs and gang vocals of second wave emo (think Cap’n Jazz) with the energy of Superchunk and hard-edged melodies not unlike those of Arches Of Loaf’s debut record. By Surprise may not do it perfectly, but for about thirty minutes they do it remarkably well.
Before I get ahead of myself, I’ll point out that the whole ’90s throwback craze right now is dangerously close to the tipping point. Personally I can’t get enough of the stuff, but I understand that like any fad it will probably become bothersome after a while. Rather than just pay tribute to their influences though, By Surprise sound more like a continuation of oft-forgotten ’90s emo, indie, and poppy punk-rock. They’re like a band picking up where so many others left off.
Lyrically, the album jumps between youthful romanticism and avant-guard stream of consciousness (the band name-drops the works of Henry David Thoreau, Jack Kerouac, and Douglas Adams over the course of the album). Personally, I found the more off-beat stuff worked better than the — at times silly — straight faced simplistic stuff. On “Fountain Splashers” this rift is most apparent, the lyrics shift between fairly basic teenage relationship stuff to the interesting imagery of “Two fountain splashers / Running from the mountain smashers”. Still, if you can get over that problem there’s a lot to like here.
“Direct Loans” does the literal stuff right, weaving a band-on-the-road tale that may not usurp Jawbreaker’s landmark “Tour Song”, but is a worthy entry into a long list of musical tour memoirs. I could see some listeners disliking Devin Carr’s (I’m assuming here, his name is top billed on their record label’s page) somewhat plain and dragging vocal delivery, but I find it quite fitting for the style of music By Surprise are performing.
So if you’re willing to let your guard down, By Surprise’s “Mountain Smashers” might just be the sleeper hit of the year. It sounds rushed, a little spotty even, but just like listening to a crate of old 7″ records: it’s a wild and eclectic ride down memory lane — even if just for half an hour.