Halfway through Beach Slang’s debut album, on a song called “I Break Guitars,” frontman James Alex asks a rhetorical question: “If rock and roll is dangerous, how can I feel so safe in it?” There are a couple of answers to that question. One is that rock and roll is not dangerous, not even remotely. It’s entirely possible that no music is dangerous anymore, at least outside of a Gathering Of The Juggalos context. If you’re not in the first 10 rows at a Hatebreed show, no music made with guitars is going to put you in any sort of physical, mental, psychological, or social danger. Any music that people still call “rock and roll” is, at the very worst, going to make you feel like the old guy at the party. In a world where we’re approaching the 50th anniversary of Pete Townshend’s Woodstock guitar-smashing, you can’t really use a song called “I Break Guitars” to declare your own wildness. And Alex knows that, since he’s been making that music for a long, long time. He joined the Pennsylvania pop-punk band Weston sometime in the early ’90s, and he stayed with them until their 2001 breakup, playing reunion shows with them a few times after that breakup. In the grand history of ’90s bands that blurred the line between pop-punk and emo, Weston were somewhere in the middle of the pack. I’m pretty sure I saw them at least once, though I could just as well be thinking of Midtown or Bayside.
And that leads me to the other reason Alex probably feels so safe in rock and roll: He is playing a real down-the-middle comfort-zone version of it. If you were into Weston, or into bands that worked the same angles as Weston back in the day, you will find plenty to like in Beach Slang. They play with the zip and vigor of ’90s pop-punk, but they also embrace cliche like Springsteen, find glory in mess like the Replacements, and gnarl up their pogo-worthy melodies like Jawbreaker. Like Celebration Rock-era Japandroids or The ’59 Sound-era Gaslight Anthem, they take all those influences, all that music that’s already starting to feel like part of our folk-music heritage, and find solace and salvation in it. They make happy-place rock and roll. And if it sounds safe, it’s no less fun for it.
Both musically and lyrically, Beach Slang aim for a certain universality, a timeless evocation of the whole young-and-broke-and-desperate-and-loving-it ethos. Musically, they get there just about every time. Beach Slang have a sound, and they almost never deviate from it: Thick and tangled guitar riffage loud in the mix, combined with a rhythm section that never stops hurtling toward the horizon. Alex has a ragged and wide-open bark of a voice, with just a hint of fake British accent to it. It’s a classic rock voice, the type that radiates toughness and vulnerability in equal measures. Lyrically, things are a little dicier, but I sort of love the way Alex wholeheartedly embraces the oldest aphorisms of his chosen genre. A few seconds into The Things We Do To Find People Who Feel Like Us, the band’s debut album, he’s howling, “It’s a dead end town for trash like us / But I got a full tank and a couple of bucks.” By way of a mission statement, he gives us this: “The songs I make, I barely rehearse them / They’re hardly mistakes, they’re meant to be honest.” He has a song called “Young & Alive” about being young and alive, despite the fact that he’s well north of 40. There’s a grand silliness to all that old Springsteenian sentiment, but Alex is nothing if not sincere. That sincerity comes through clearly in the music and turns what could’ve been a pure genre exercise into something much more full-blooded. The way Alex sings these lines, they stop being about upholding cliches. Instead, they’re songs about keeping flames alive, about staying connected to what drove you when you were a kid. They become motivational anthems.
Alex only acknowledges his age once: On the album’s prettiest song, “Too Late To Die Young.” Musically, it’s Beach Slang’s “Good Riddance (Time Of Your Life)”: No drums or distortion, just acoustic guitars and cello and piano. On it, Alex stops sounding so much like Jawbreaker frontman Blake Schwarzenbach and sounds, instead, a bit like Goo Goo Dolls frontman John Rzeznik. (He sounds great both ways, weirdly enough.) “Too young to die, too late to die young,” he laments. “I try to fight but get high and give up.” It’s that classic dilemma, wanting to still be your younger self but still feeling reality drag you down. But Alex has an answer, and that answer is: “Baby, turn your heart up.” It looks fucking absurd on paper, like the most vapid meaning-free “rocker” line you could possibly make up. But when Alex bleats it, it feels somehow profound. And maybe that’s why a cliche can work: When you howl it loud enough, when you mean it enough, you can still remind the world why it carried enough weight to become a cliche in the first place.
This past weekend, Beach Slang played the first show of their current tour in Charlottesville, the sleepy Southeastern college town where I happen to live. They were late to the show, for reasons that presumably had everything to do with D.C. traffic. I watched them pull up to the club and charge through the smallish crowd, gear in hand. And by the time they made it to the stage, they were so happy. Alex seemed to be in absolute disbelief that he’d finally made it there; he seemed to be shaking with adrenaline by the time he stepped onstage. He no-hands chugged a local craft beer bottle between songs, then covered Jawbreaker’s “Boxcar,” seemingly on the spur of the moment, because Boxcar was the name of the beer. (Beach Slang are playing a full set of Jawbreaker covers at the Fest in Florida next week, so that was something of a dress rehearsal, too.) The Richmond band Positive No opened the show, and frontwoman Tracy Wilson had been in a band that had played shows with Weston back in the day. She hadn’t seen Alex in years, and the two of them took turns saying effusive things about one another between songs. Beach Slang sold their first vinyl copy of The Things We Do at that show, and they shouted out the person who bought it from the stage. They were so overwhelmingly giddy, in fact, that every word on the album somehow became more true. Alex made a whole album about living the life your 15-year-old self envisioned, and now he’s out there doing it. That’s inspirational.
The Things We Do To Find People Who Feel Like Us is out 10/30 on Polyvinyl. Stream it below.
Other notable albums out this week:
• The National/Menomena side project El Vy’s brood-pop debut Return To The Moon.
• Car Seat Headrest’s personal indie-bedroom primer Teens Of Style.
• Sports’ quick, jaunty indie-popper All Of Something.
• Horrendous’ monumental death metal churn Anareta
• Real Estate leader Martin Courtney’s solo move Many Moons.
• Laura Stevenson’s lush, personal folk-punker Cocksure.
• GEMS’ glimmering indie-popper Kill The One You Love.
• Foxing’s grand, ornate emo opus Dealer.
• Trust Fund’s fiery twee punker Seems Unfair.
• Florist’s DIY emoter Holdly.
• The Chills’ kiwi-pop comeback Silver Bullets.
• Tool side project Puscifer’s self-aware math-metal howler Money Shot.
• Pictureplane’s cyberpunk electro jam Technomancer.
• Wolf Eyes’ seething noise ripper I Am A Problem: Mind In Pieces.
• Haybaby’s scalding punk rock debut Sleepy Kids.
• MED, Blu & Madlib’s insular boom-bap exercise Bad Neighbor.
• Cheatah’s dream-pop blur Mythologies.
• Young Galaxy’s glimmering pop/R&B album Falsework.
• Shmu’s surreal genre-blender Shhh!!!!
• Escort’s disco-revival dance party Animal Nature.
• Kirk Knight’s backpack-rap revival Late Knight Special.
• Elbow frontman Guy Garvey’s solo move Courting The Squall.
• Sun Club’s jangly psych-popper The Dongo Durango.
• Ólafur Arnalds & Nils Frahm’s ambient nod-out Collaborative Works.
• Hooded Menace’s thundering death/doom destroyer Darkness Drips Forth.
• Painted Zeros’ noisily drifting shoegazer Floriography.
• Sheer Agony’s power pop debut Masterpiece.
• Phish frontman Trey Anastasio’s solo move Paper Wheels.
• Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings’ holiday collection It’s A Holiday Soul Party.
• Fall Out Boy’s inexplicable remix collection Make America Psycho Again.
• The Disney tribute compilation We Love Disney.
• Greys’ Repulsion EP.
• Shigeto’s Intermission EP.
• Iglooghost’s Chinese Nü Year EP.
• Laced’s self-titled debut EP.