In a strange fit of synchronicity, just as we Minions were pouring through the catalog of 1990s NC band Archers of Loaf, we got a promo request in which a press writer compared the band to the Archers. Really? Did they only think of that because AoL were doing reunion shows?
Well, it got my attention and i took a few listens to Mountain Smashers, the debut LP by Haddon Heights, NJ based By Surprise. While Archers of Loaf is not the first comparison that would have sprung to my mind, i think that By Surprise are doing something similar within the guitar rock framework. The difference being that Archers were riffing on punk and expanding from there, while By Surprise start from 1990s indie rock, and riff from there. What i mean is, By Surprise are a second generation 1990s American indie rock band, which is kind of odd when you think about it...
So let's not think about it and instead take a look at the songs. The record starts with Books By Thoreau, the whole band yelling vaguely in harmony while drums pound and guitars chime. By Surprise channels Superchunk on Realometer, where the bands guitarists trade riffs just like Jim and Mac did on No Pocky For Kitty. The vocals are kind of shouty though, but this has a great beat and really moves along.
Things are even catchier on Mostly Harmless, where one of the voices kind of speaks his lyrics. The lyrics are nonsense, but the bass thumps away and the guitars jangle and chime. Good stuff. The song flows easily into Last Chance To See, their second song named after a Douglas Adams book. This moves along slowly, with lots of cymbals and chugging guitars.
The 39 second interlude Photoshoot is next, just a brief flurry of guitars grinding away at a catchy riff. Huh.
The band make fun of their album title with Fountain Splashers, a slow song. A vocalist with a vaguely nasally voice (the press material i got did not explain what band member did what, but there are at least two different voices featured on the album) sings witty and sad lyrics. In the second verse he sings "Disappointment is more my style anyway" -- how can you not love that? The music behind the voice is some kind of strange spacey sounds and light strummed guitar. Fun.
By Surprise get their rock back on with $600 Exorcism. This moves as a fast pace, just chugging along and similar to Books By Thoreau, except here i can really hear the Archers influence. This could have been on Vee Vee, well, except for the nasally voice. So Long and Thanks For All The Shark Jaws continues the catchy trend, except here the guitars are outtakes from Superchunk's Here's Where the Strings Come In. At this point in listening, i realize that i need to see this band in concert.
The next tune comes in with a loping beat and the languid voice singing Daggermouth Is Playing At My House. Now, i have to confess that i have no clue who "Daggermouth" is, but i suspect this is an attempt to create an anthem similar to Daft Punk Is Playing At My House, except as shouty math rock instead of indie disco. The song grows really noisy, with some intense riffing.
Catchy rock is back for Hanging Out With Wendy In Sulik Land. This has shouted vocals, really fast drumming, and some intense guitar riffing. And then in the middle there is a part where one of the vocalists is speaking rapidly, telling some story behind the chiming guitars, and then suddenly there is a saxophone. That's a really nice effect.
Finally By Surprise wrap things up with the lightly, folkish Direct Loans, with the less nasally voice singing about the poverty inherent in the indie rock lifestyle of sleeping on floors and borrowing money. The song gets a little crunchy towards the end, but still feels like an odd way to end the record. After the mathy, shouty rock that dominates the album, this seems almost too sad to wrap things up.
But whatever. On the whole, this is a fun record. By Surprise hit a lot of reference points i like and do it well. If you like 1990s American indie rock, you should track down a copy of this.