‘Surf City’, a speedy internet search reveals, is a seaside town in North Carolina and also the nickname for the Californian surf mecca Huntingdon Beach. It’s also, somewhat misleadingly, the name of New Zealand’s finest – or second-finest, depending on your views on Splashh – purveyors of spaced-out, blurry rock, who in addition to not being from North Carolina or California, are not in fact very surfy at all. (No one has, as of yet, decided what sport – water based or otherwise – Surf City actually resemble. Something fairly leisurely, probably, such as backstroke or hang gliding.)
We Knew It Was Not Going To Be Like This is the second full-length from the Auckland group, following 2010’s Kudos, and it’d be fair to say the band haven’t exactly tweaked their formula much in their three years of absence. The songs on the album have one foot in fuzzy psychedelia and the other in punchy, poppy garage rock in the same way as those on Kudos did, blossoming from the point at which the two styles meet and occasionally making a foray deeper into one side than another.
The brilliance of We Knew It Was Not Going To Be Like This is in its structure. Surf City take the listener on a trip from garageland to the sunny pastures of psych-rock over the course of the album, but do it so gradually and subtly you hardly notice. You’ll find yourself halfway through the epic, nine-minute instrumental space-walk of closing track What Gets Me By, and suddenly realize you’re still listening to the same record that began with the frustrated (“We’re so angry ‘cause we can’t explain”), foul-mouthed (“Fuck the kids who don’t know what’s around”) vigour of It’s A Common Life.
Our first stop en route is the chugging wistfulness of second track I Had The Starring Role, in which frontman Davin Stoddard yelps about his heartache over grindingly tactile metallic guitar crunches and contrasting sickly-sweet backing vocal ‘oooh’s. He’s got an interesting vocal delivery, Stoddard: yelping, slurring and drawling his way through We Knew… like a drunk at a karaoke bar.
It all adds to the record’s general irresistibly slapdash quality. The guitar lines are languid and fumbling, those sugary backing vocals waver in and out of tune, everything seems to emerge half-formed out of a thick fog of reverb. It all sounds as though it’s been written and recorded by a band who’ve only just woken up, or who haven’t been to bed at all – but somehow it works, sandpapering what could be a fairly saccharine album to just the right degree of roughness.
The band are at their best when they slip fully into tripped-out slacker-pop mode, in the unhurried psychedelic ramblings of Claims Of A Galactic Medium, Oceanic Graphs Of The Wilderness (some cracking song titles on this), and What Gets Me By. Claims… is chirpy, euphoric and utterly incomprehensible, like a The The song blasted out in a swimming pool; Oceanic… is more low-key, droning itself into existence with juddering sweeps of effect-laden feedback punctuated by one-note guitar stabs and then dissolving into frenetic noise, before regaining control once more.
As with any album relying on a particular sound, We Knew… does suffer from being a little samey at points, some songs lacking the means to distinguish themselves from their brethren – Song From A Short-Lived TV Series and No Place To Go being two cases in point. But the album’s sense of propulsion is so strong even the weaker tracks don’t drag at all. Splashh fans looking for something a little dreamier: this’ll do you nicely.