The Bambi Molesters: Dumb Loud Hollow Twang â€“ Deluxe (Dancing Bear 2003)
(Originally posted on Surf Guitar 101, July 13, 2004)
1997's "Dumb Loud Hollow Twang" was the first release by the fantastic Croatian surf band the Bambi Molesters. I was lucky enough to get the original version of "DLHT" when it first came out, and enjoyed it through the years. It has since become a real rarity and a collector's item, especially once the BMs started being hailed as the best modern surf band in the world by European press, Croatian music industry, as well as REM (who have taken the band under their wing, giving them opening slots on their European tours, helping them produce the records, etc.). However, I always felt that the relatively poor recording quality of the original album masked the greatness of the songs. So I was very happy to find out that the band rerecorded the entire album in 2003. The new CD, though enjoyable, initially did not impress me much: the same songs, and at first listen they didn't sound THAT different. That was about a month ago. Since then that damn CD keeps finding its way into my player on a daily basis, sometimes multiple times! I've now come to realize that in fact the old recording DID hide one of the greatest surf albums of the last decade.
If you never heard the BM's, it's not easy to explain their sound. It's at the same time very familiar and trad sounding, while being all their own and sometimes seriously groundbreaking. They use the usual two guitars/bass/drums lineup, and though each player is very good, I would not describe any of them as a virtuoso. Their sounds are very traditional: Jazzmaster guitars, Dual Showman and Twin Reverb amps, reverb units, crisp sixties drum sounds, rumbling bass without too much definition, just like it's supposed to be in trad surf music. But what sets them apart is their songwriting, which is truly amazing. The only way to describe their songs is as multi-layered. Many of them appear as just simple traditional surf songs on first listen, but with subsequent hearings, all sorts of layers start opening up, enriching the listening experience and revealing great beauty the more you get to know them. That's a really neat trick to pull off! It's no wonder that REM have become huge fans of the band, and that the BMs have been touring all around Europe (and beyond at least once), as well as winning all sorts of music awards in Croatia. I think it would be fair to describe the Bambi Molesters as the most influential surf band today, as I have been noticing their signature sound in other European bands, especially German and Italian ones.
A little bit about the CD itself. It has all the 15 original songs which were on the original album, but it also adds four covers which they have been performing over the last few years. The covers are: an instro classic The Breeze and I (done by many, but the BMs version is their own, very slow and pretty), the Fender IV's "Margaya", which is probabably my favorite cover of one of my all-time favorite surf songs - the BMs get truly savage on this version, with raging, overdriven guitar and a pummelling beat - it's a thing of beauty!; the Surftones' "Cecilia Ann", never one of the faves, but done well; and finally, "Restless", a vocal originally done by one of the first Brit r&r acts, Johnny Kidd and the Pirates. The song features some fantastic and intricate dual guitar parts, with an astonishing guitar solo, recapturing the magic of the original (on the original the lead was played by one of the best English guitarists ever, Mick Green - you should all get some of their stuff, it's incredible). The singer on "Restless" is Chris Eckman, of the US band the Walkabouts. In fact, the BMs and Eckman have just released a whole CD together going under the name of the Strange. "Restless" gives you a good idea of their sound: twangy and very moody - like Deadbolt if they could actually play instruments and weren't a one-joke band. (Also, think Tom Waits, etc.)
On to the originals, and this is the heart of the album. Starts off with the raging "Wanganui", typically surf but like nothing you ever heard before, moving through different parts that all seem to perfectly follow each other. It also sets the audio picture of the album, with rhythm guitar leaning to the left and the lead guitar leaning to the right channel. I can speculate and say that I think it's usually Dinko Tomljanovic on the left and Dalibor Pavicic on the right. But it's not fair to describe it as just rhythm/lead, since Dinko is an excellent guitarist and adds all sorts of lead breaks, and I suspect it's him playing the incredible solo on "Restless". The two-guitar interplay is one important factor that makes the Bambi Molesters so damn interesting and multilayered. They're constantly trading off, playing counterpoint, etc. which makes for a really interesting headphone experience. After "Wanganui" blows the doors off in two minutes, we're off to a high-tempo "Hot Water Pool" which raises the energy a few notches further, tapping into the spirit of the Fender IV, but with the unusual addition of blaring trumpets complementing more low-E pummelling - but it works beautifully! Like an explosion, it's all finished very fast (1:40), and we're on to the supremely moody "Restless", which is followed by the even moodier ballad "Pearl Divin'" (one of four original ballads on the album). Nobody does surf ballads like the Bambi Molesters - they are the kings, without a doubt. With a bit of an acoustic guitar, piano and electric piano thrown in, and subdued drums, the beautiful melody just soars. One gets a feeling of the peace and calm of real sea/ocean diving or snorkeling. Very evocative. Next is "Point Break", which is probably my favorite on the whole album. What starts as a seemingly simple and somewhat obvious surf song keeps building for its 4+ minutes, going from one climax to another, until shivers set in and the only way to react is to start laughing out loud in disbelief of how good this song realy is. "Point Break" shows a band in complete mastery of its art, having played together for more than eight years, and finely attuned to each other. Each instrument very subtly builds in intensity on its own terms and in its own time, contributing to a whole which is MUCH larger than the sum of its parts. And the melody and SEVERAL different bridges (how many surf songs have THAT??) simply perfectly embody the mysteriousness that surf music is supposed to be about. It's astonishing. Next up is "The Breeze and I" that has some of the most surf-like piano playing I've heard since the Chantays. And then "Margaya" wakes you up from the dream of sunny beaches and shallow turqoise waters, shaking you up and spitting you out with vengeance! Wow. And just when you think, well, there's no way it can get any better, it DOES! "Big Time Action" comes on, with an urgent, nervous intro leading to more low-E pummelling at a brisk tempo, bringing to mind the imagery of big-wave surfers. But just as the power of big-wave surfing is balanced by the grace and delicate balance and sometimes outright frailty of the act, so it is with this song - the heavy beginning is followed by some beautiful, fragile melodies. As far as I'm concerned, these first eight songs of the album are just perfect.
But the highlights don't stop there: there is the very original mood-piece "Catatonya" with a sparse melody augmented by some heavily-vibratoed guitar as well as subtle theremin and featuring a lot of creative quiet-but-intense counterpoint two-guitar playing. There is also "Standing on the Nose in a Stylish Manner" - when was there a better surf song title than this??? It is a perfect mid-tempo, melodic surf song, again with great dynamics and building into the perfect bridge which nicely transitions back to the verse. There is "Coastal Disturbance" which can only be described as, well, disturbing! Midtempo with some harsh tonalities and aggressive playing by Dinko, it nicely offsets the beauty offered in other songs. Hey, seaside life isn't all sun, babes and sand! But who are we kidding, it is that a LOT of the time! :) And when it is, nothing better to listen to than "Tremor", an achingly beautiful, slightly uptempo, minor-key ballad. There are more songs, but I'm running out of adjecives, so I better wrap it up with "Glider", the closing number which is another ballad that has to be heard to be believed. Gloriously moody and peaceful while at the same time highly evocative, it's perfectly augmented by some mexican-flavored trumpet.
Not every one of the 19 songs is amazing, but the 4 or 5 songs that aren't, are still really damn good. Not only is the songwriting exceptional and playing very capable, but the production is flawless, with all the instruments sounding beautiful and with the addition of always subtle and appropriate spicy touches of other instruments, such as acoustic and electric piano, organ, trumpet, theremin, sax, even harp. Finally, the artwork is perfect, it doesn't get better than this. The Bambi Molesters got all of it right on this album, and no true surf music fan can afford to be without this CD. It may become thee CD to reach for when somebody asks me to demonstrate what modern surf music is all about. As far as I'm concerned, with this album as well as their two previous ones (also excellent) they have reached the top of the heap. At this moment in time, they are the supreme surf band in the world. (I also got the DVD with the CD, which is amazing - but that's a whole different review.)