Shigeo Naka's long-running Surf Coasters called it quits recently, ending a stretch of ten years, a dozen or so full-length albums, almost as many EPs and singles, and countless unpredictable stylistic changes. Part of their appeal (to me, at least) was never really knowing where they were going to go over the course of an album. While ridiculously energetic and pumped surf was always their specialty (and the one thing they kept coming back to), jazz, punk, rockabilly, metal, funk, country and even techno were all possibilities, and all styles the band explored at some point or another. While the cast of supporting musicians around Shigeo changed many times, both the first and last line-ups lasted through several releases. This posthumous live album, released last month, fills the one hole that previously existed in their convoluted discography—a complete live document (well, not counting the DVD, I guess).
Almost the entire show, recorded last August, is an all-out power assault—only "Dreams," their slow-burn version of "Baja" (still sporting a wildly inappropriate fuzz break) and the lone previously unreleased song bring the energy levels down temporarily. There's a few flubs, etc. throughout, but if anything they only make the album that much more of an accurate live representation.
It opens with two absolute monster performances—a spirited run-through of the jaw-dropping "Intruder" followed by "Samurai Struck." The former features a different feel in some places, with several slight changes. The differences are subtle, but definitely noticeable—a different phrasing here, a changed drumbeat there ... it's quite effective in terms of separating the performance from the other live versions they've recorded. "Samurai Struck" features the opposite approach, with the studio arrangement copied as closely as possible.
Halfway in, former rhythm guitarist Masashi Sakai joins the band for five songs. While anyone who saw the three-piece version on either of their US tours or the DVD could tell you they more than delivered the goods, the added instrumentation certainly doesn't hurt things at all.
The first song played as a four-piece, and arguably the one to benefit most from this is "The Lost New Song." Besides having quite the odd title, it's really languid and mellow. Sakai's acoustic rhythm meshes well with a tasteful supporting bass line, and the tune—about halfway between "Adventures in Paradox" and their pm EP—is quite compelling ... at first. At almost four and a half minutes, despite a cool volume swell section (shades of "Cathedral," perhaps?) it outstays it welcome a bit—the crowd reaction is noticeably muted following its conclusion. Of course, this could also be because Shigeo tears off on a supremely out of place over-distorted shred blues solo for most of the last third of the song.
A disappointing cover of "Popcorn" (whoever's playing synth has a few moments that unfortunately call to mind the awful organ solo on Zorba & the Greeks' "Shockwave") is followed by Sakai's tune "Kuroshio," for which he takes over lead duties. It's a nice performance of a great song—maybe not quite as compelling as the studio version, but certainly a nice surprise nonetheless.
Following that, the line-up shrinks back down to a three-piece and tears into their schizoid version "Thunderbirds Are Go!" It quickly abandons a dirty Link Wray-type intro for spy jazz, thrash, prog and arena rock sections. To say it lacks cohesion is a bit of an understatement. The first time through it's nothing if not captivating, although a few more listens reveal that it peaks really early—everything after the 1:45 mark is pretty disappointing. Shigeo's extended solo sticks to two main styles—Van Halen shred and intermittently compelling Hendrix-ian whammy abuse. Interestingly enough it's probably the only song that really benefits from not having rhythm guitar—the studio version had way too much going on and ended up sounding very cluttered at times.
Really, though, the new song, "Popcorn" and "Thunderbirds" are the only minor frustrations with the tracklist. (Okay, four—"Typhoon Swell" still isn't very good.) Everything else is great, from the standards to the surprises, and the rhythm section is especially solid throughout.
The absence of rhythm guitar on many songs frees up bassist Nobuhiro Kurita to do a lot more than just sit on the root notes, but his lines never become overly busy. He's also the one responsible for the most overt "Huh?" moment of the entire album. Near the end of the set, the theme song from the first Runabout game gives way—seriously—to a solo bass performance of "13 Jours en France."
Drummer Naotaki Seki, easily the best of the three drummers the group has had, hits hard. Very hard. Just like the DVD performance, "Nineteen" breaks down in the middle for an extended drum solo, and he cuts it off just at the point where it would start getting self-indulgent.
Since they opened with "Intruder," things have to close out with "Misirlou," which has apparently become their signature song back in Japan. Their version, which leans heavily on DD's "Misirlou Twist" (though thankfully lacking violins), has only gotten bigger and more powerful since it appeared on their first release back in 1995. Few modern versions can match up favorably in terms of power, and this particular run-through is just as huge as their 2003 re-recording. You can't accuse the group of going out on a low point—it's certainly a fitting sendoff for an amazing band
If you happen to be unfamiliar with most of the band's work, you'd be much better off picking up one of their two best-of CDs for a more comprehensive overview. Many consider Surfdelic, Surfside Village and Surf Attack to be their best albums (they're certainly the most traditional), and this one only has a combined three songs from those releases, each of which is better represented on their career spanning collections.
It pretty much goes without saying this album won't do anything to change the polarizing effect the group had on surf fans—those who fault the band for their non-traditional leanings will find plenty to groan about here, but those who have enjoyed their work in the past probably won't need much of an arm-twisting to order a copy.
It's a nice companion to their On Stage DVD, and it definitely delivers on the promise shown through the scattered live tracks on various albums of theirs. Whether or not it's worth the import price is strictly a judgment call—over half the songs appear in some form on the US and Japan versions of Samurai Struck, and many appear on the DVD as well. Still, it's highly recommended, and an excellent addition to their extensive discography.
I got this CD about a week ago and I was slightly disappointed. The songs are as fun and the performance is as intense as ever, but at times the sound struck me as, I don't know, "plinkety?" But I didn't realize this is their swan song! Now I'm just depressed! Man, they were such a great band--one of my favorites since I first discovered surf (in fact it was "Intruder" that turned me into a surf fan). How disappointing it is to see them go. They broadened surf's horizons into the realms of speed, intensity, power, and general ass-kickery far deeper than so many others. What a ride, but I suppose even the most monstruous of swells must eventually break.
Excellent review, Warren! Very, very nice. Now, you gotta tell us where you got this CD?
Whoops. Kind of forgot about that part. For now it seems like amazon.co.jp is the only place stocking it:
I have a box of them. I am now trying out the PayPal thing, so check out at the Mart: http://www.pollodelmar.com/mart (missing image) --Ferenc Also, ZPTDuda should have them soon.
I have a box of them. I am now trying out the PayPal thing, so check out at the Mart: http://www.pollodelmar.com/mart --Ferenc Also, ZPTDuda should have them soon.
Yep... while the Surf Coasters on a bad day are better than 99% of any bands out there, I'm also disappointed in this CD. I agree with the shrilly sound... Fender amps always sound shrill to me, but this recording is rediculous. Don't know if it was the recording/mix or amp setup (hard to believe Naka didn't set it up right).
Also, I've heard/recorded the SC four times in the last couple years, as well as owning the 10th Anniversary DVD, and I've never heard Naka miss a note... well, that's an exaggeration, but he is an amazingly precise guitar player. On this new CD, he misses all over the place, and the the performance sounds tired and somewhat uninspired.
Still, like I say, on a bad day, the SC are still amazing...
Recommended, but not their best effort.