Albums / EPs, Reviews

Album Review: Beach Party – Ribs or Death

To many, it would be unsurprising that surf-rock quintet Beach Party have dropped a new album so…

To many, it would be unsurprising that surf-rock quintet Beach Party have dropped a new album so soon after the release of 2013’s For Now We Are Young. Stickily titled Ribs or Death, the album is the collective sum of their musical hyperactivity, a fortnight spent in a beach house near Kalk Bay, some fireworks and a few too many beers. There had been a flurry of new material scattered generously amongst Beach Party’s live performances, but now devotees have been gifted 8 new tracks on their Bandcamp page in trendy name-your-price packaging. 

However, for all their endearingly merry-making qualities, there are instances on this album, too plentiful to discount, where it seems Beach Party have rested far too heavily and too long on their sandy-duned laurels. Whilst love and youth are major and familiar themes, all the questions they’re asking end up closed and cold. After a few listens, light and effervescent, it’s difficult to think of Ribs or Death as anything more than music festival fodder (see: ‘Swim Together’) for a boozed-out crowd. Nothing ever really happens; sometimes it’s too hard to keep up with them, and most times it’s hard to be bothered with where they’re going. 

When Beach Party first rocketed onto the scene in 2011 with their self-titled EP, they were the breath of fresh air in the increasingly stale state of affairs. A group of talented instrumentalists; cool kids with long hair and vintage shirts completely owning their fantastic live performances and vibrant stage presence. Anyone having attended a Beach Party gig can attest to the fact that their subtle appeal is in the energy they transmit in the music-making process. The delivery is soulful, every moment is gratifying and it’s impossibly easy to get swept in the youthful thrill of it all. Consequently, they’ve swanned their way through various openings for international acts (Dune Rats, The Subways and Fun Lovin’ Criminals) and attracted a loyal fanbase in the process that eagerly anticipated this record. 

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Ribs or Death opens up intriguingly with ‘Run’, a track that’s preceded by a grandiose Spanish styled guitar-pattering intro. Jangly, lame-wristed guitar strums march along as lead singer, David Gabriel Thorpe, throws his voice heavenward. It’s a bustling effort and it’s difficult to imagine that Andrew Esterhuizen’s mastering wasn’t tweaked to emulate the frantic zeal that is found aplenty in their live deliveries. It’s a motif that runs throughout the album; they’re having fun making this music and they don’t care who knows it. Yet, dangerously, at a point it begins to feel like an inside-joke that’s run too long, and self-indulgent and aimless guitar solo’s begin to creep in. They’ve got all the ego we expect from a surf-rock outfit and a healthy disregard for context and expectations. But nothing here is done to invite a listener into a memory or to share an emotion in the way that those reverb-drenched guitars should. 

Immediately problematic is that the complacent assuredness that seeps between the cracks of the album. The easy and cool success of ‘Water’ is a feat that is not so easily repeated, yet not for lack of trying. Beachside love songs like ‘Swim Together’ and ‘Gonna Make U Mine’ are both immediately recognisable to fans and can come off a little plastic, but hold simple and pure messages. A disparate and danceable Afro-inspired guitar rhythm accompanies both tunes, yet they fail to distinguish themselves from previous efforts within the Beach Party discography. 

I Want To the album’s lead single is the first hint at a different direction the band may be looking to take. The tones are subdued, almost like they’re moving through custard, but compelling all the same. Thorpe’s reedy voice colours in the greasy character he portrays in this song. As he warbles “you’ll only end up feeling like a whore,” mid-track, the conversational tone belies the song’s leering nature; one half endearing and another half off-putting. It’s almost a shame that they then so steadfastly returned to roads more firmly treaded for the bulk of the record.

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Far too late down the meandering path that is Ribs or Death, comes ‘Would you Say’, its saving grace. The track is stripped of Beach Boys impersonations and breakneck guitars alike. For a moment, Danielle Hitchcock’s smoky contralto is allowed the freedom that has done such wonderful favours for duel-vocalist bands like The Dirty Projectors. Blunt witticisms are strung together with a thin guitar melody to deliver the album’s only instance of transcendence. Their sunny philosophy is not infallible, but it’s all the more real for it. It’s a sound that was mastered by the likes of Little Joy: that sad, sweet, slow-burning that seems to perfectly capture a moment or a lifetime of uncertainty. “We’ll find something to doubt,” croons Hitchcock in an unflappable display of honesty and durability. 

Perhaps that this in itself could define Ribs or Death: a series of instances recorded on a beach holiday that have been twined together. Yes, bravado could have been their folly here. But life will go on for them, they will make new music under various names and compound genres, and the names of the songs on Ribs Or Death may slip our minds and be forgotten. Nonetheless it’s equally likely that its songs will end up on an nervously-made mix-tape or playing in a beat-up car during a hook-up in the beach parking lot, and the songs will remind those people of being carefree and of being young. And really, who are we to say that that’s not what Beach Party set out to do all along?

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