Occasionally, it’s time for a true and proper Surf Rock album, even for those listeners who venture into vintage Exotica realms and favor the overly dreamy guitar-less (!) kitsch of Alex Keack’s ephemeral album Surfers Paradise (1961) over the rather cracking and fulminant beach-influenced sounds of today. Enter The Brigantines, an original Surf Pop group of four tough guys from Red Bank, New Jersey, who stress the Pop genre in their description, although I'm sure we’re talking pretty much about Rock here. After their debut EP Next Summer (2011), they now present their first full-length album called Vacation!, released in July 2012. The band consists of frontman, vocalist and keyboardist Vincent Minervino, bassist, vocalist and percussionist Aaron Leonovich, guitarist and vibist Scott Saint Hilaire and drummer-percussionist Dan Tojeira. All four of them combine the ultimate surf sounds of The Beach Boys and The Ventures and blend them with the quieter, more introverted and thoughtful arrangements of Chris Isaak and The Kinks – and yet The Brigantines don’t sound like their idols at all, but have updated their own sound with steel guitars, pumping drums and occasionally acidified riffs. The main topic, however, remains the same: the devotion for that certain dream girl whom the surfer encounters by chance or has carefully singled out. In fact, almost all of the 12 included compositions – eleven of them unique, one a rendition of a famous song even your parents know by heart – are about all sorts of attractive women and pretty ladies. While the thematic scope is narrow, the composition-related tricks are all the more carved out, as The Brigantines come up with a compelling rotation of cherubic happiness, nostalgic sepia memories and nocturnal beach combing panoramas in the veins of The Vanduras, Los Venturas, The Hula Girls or The Blue Hawaiians. Fans of instrumentals will be happy to see three of them included on Vacation!, so without further ado, here’s a closer look at the debut of The Brigantines which you can listen to in full on The Brigantines' Bandcamp page.
The point of departure and gateway to paradise that literally no one wants to miss is a long vacation. Vacation! is the album’s initial point and as such has to be a standout coup de main and needs to confront the listener with conflictive feelings: you better enjoy this vacation, pal, for it will be over all too soon. Since this is the case, the listener is greeted with sun-soaked guitars and their golden-shimmering backing brethren, but lots of notes are interwoven in minor, stressing the warring interests of the party crowd and a strong melancholic working morale. Vincent Minervino’s lead vocals are hence not effervescent at all, but drowned in nostalgia: "We have a good time in the sunshine" can be considered as an agenda, a way of living, a necessary task or a hopeful plea. If you think I’m overanalyzing this opening track, you may well be right, but believe me, it’s not a senseless Spring Break song at all, but has the evocative sensibility which every better Surf Rock or Dark Exotica song is able to induce. Content-wise, the song shifts, but Dan Tojeira on the drums does not, as he is delivering the different rhythms and syncopal beat structures with ease, while he and Aaron Leonovich also provide a variety of percussion devices that add glacial plasticity to the mix. They aren’t overly exotic – at least not on this introductory track – but still far away from the boring blend of the same old maracas and seed shakers. If the mood was indeed a tad doleful, the situation is rectified with Ray-Bans, which is also released as a single. The tempo is revved up, the dreamy-wonky hybrid sustain of the steel guitar mimics the Hawaiian way of life and is allowed to resonate in the background despite the already rich vibrant soundscape full of crunchy strings and a surfer’s loss of his sunglasses during a ride. Even though Minervino, Leonovich and Saint Hilaire are all playing in tandem and augment the vividness further, it is the segue after about 90 seconds where the guitars are subordinate to Minervino’s vocals, creating a delicately dusky diorama with long, reverberated fade-out phases.
Once the final warped twang of the steel guitar fades into the night, Brigantine Barrel is on, a wonderfully nocturnal instrumental that changes the endemic flavor to loneliness-evoking directionless driving through a moon-lit concrete jungle. The bass guitar is acidic and full of bile, while the protuberant guitar waves wash over the listener, containing both balmy and gelid traits. The liminal dissonances of the steel guitar twangs make this a huge track, and the pressuring blue-colored riffs widen the nighttime setting further. While Take You Home is as amorous and devoted as a cool surf composition can possibly get, merging sizzling-hot multilayered guitar riffs full of perniciously thunderous energy with the counteracting bitter-sweet phantasmagoria of thoughtful requests targeted at a lady to enter the holy alcoves of a well-skilled surfer, Verity succeeds with its refreshingly unvarnished arrangement of acoustic guitars, castanet-like clicks, marvelously blurred guitar streams in the background and only the occasional glint of fulminant string infusions; yet again is the well-known soothing effect of the spellbinding half-tone steps interwoven which cause the legato of the steel guitar to waft languorously. Lose Myself presents a Rockabilly rhythm and could well be the most upbeat and uplifting take The Brigantines have to offer, but the distinguishing mark for Exotica lovers is without a doubt the sitar-like guitar in the middle section of the tune which not only intermixes a slight Middle Eastern flavor, but accomplishes to work well in the adjacency of the eminently golden yellow colors created by the interplay. Next Summer offers yet another unexpected shift, at least to those who don't know the song from their eponymous debut EP already, as its tambourine-fueled rhythm together with the tremendously dreamy guitar flow create an almost syrupy saccharine Summer song; it’s a glaring contrast to the material the band delivers on Vacation!, it seems as if they want to fathom out the gentler side of the Surf Rock genre, as there’s no particularly ominous or baleful riff admixed. Next Summer resides, if anything, on the opposite side of the spectrum, conflating luxurious Pop hooks with euphonious structures. The Brigantines' other works can be compared to dobs, since they purposefully have harsh edges. This streamlined composition, though, is an emerald-green gem and a huge favorite of mine, making it a top choice even for those listeners who aren’t fond of Surf Rock in particular or darker Rock songs in general.
It is the instrumental Reeferone that brings the chilly laissez-faire attitude back to the table, complete with an ethereal frostiness of the electric guitar riffs and trembling desperado guitars walloping in the background, and while the auspiciously titled follow-up Sunset Motel seems to neglect its poetic title by featuring sinisterly fast-paced bass guitar-backed rhythms, the situation improves soon as The Brigantines illustrate the orange-tinted panorama with one of their rare polyphonous choruses, deliberately murky accompaniments and earth-shattering drums full of iridescently gleaming guitar stabs. Minervino is once more keen on the depiction of finding the girl of one’s dreams in the most inconspicuous places, and seriously, if you take away the fast drums and drop the tempo, you’ve got yourself a great surf ballad. Although the following Change Your Mind harks back to the acoustic, intimate side and is therefore similar to Next Summer, it is nonetheless traversed by spacey steel guitars, a spluttering moiré of percussive drops and an ongoing deepening shift of the mood: what started as a fragile, nostalgic song grows into a melodramatic composition with voluminous strings. The penultimate tune Then She Kissed Me seems like the poignant endpoint to an album full of romantic advances, and yes, it is indeed an interpretation of the 1963 stomper by The Crystals full of warmth, harmony and another splendid vocal performance by Leonovich and Minervino. The final track is either a real treat or an unnecessary addendum, depending on one’s viewpoint, as the title track Vacation! is presented in an instrumental version, allowing the listener to gaze onto the textures and team play of the band. I’m usually a big fan of instrumentals – more than 80% of the Exotica genre fall into that category after all – but here we have the rare case where the vocals are really missing and do add that certain something to the oscillating shuttling between blithe and reminiscence. It’s probably the biggest compliment a lead singer can receive.
Vacation! is a wonderful and wondrous debut at the same time, for The Brigantines add unexpected ornaments and curlicues to their compositions that change the tone and mood in ways that seem questionable for a moment, but are then ideally suited in terms of the intended vividness and diversion. And diversion is what this album lacks at first, as the majority of the presented material is about the capture of a woman’s heart; the songs that aren’t about this topic are instrumentals, hehe. While there’s nothing wrong with such a focus, I would have wished for a wider pool of ideas and topics. I don’t mind kitsch, stereotypical remarks or schmaltz, so there would have been plenty of other sub-themes and incidents the band could write songs about, Ray-Bans and of course the titular track Vacation! show the possible range. But that’s nit-picking, for I want to come back to the arrangement-related ornaments I briefly mentioned: it is these particles that elevate the songs into higher regions. What starts as an intimate track can become something entirely different and more powerful in the end, Change Your Mind for example. Likewise, the jumpiness between quieter passages and over-saturated guitarscapes is actually great, even more so since Vacation! is strongly mellifluous and harmonious. This is no surprise, as the band mentions the impact of 50’s and 60’s surf music. But once there are modern string instruments entering the scene, the dreaminess is either boosted with the help of steel guitars, or diminished with acidic riffs and dark hooks. Even though I’m a fan of dreamy Exotica music, Surf Rock has to provide a strongly energetic angle, the feeling of freedom and a chosen temporary loneliness or independence, and The Brigantines deliver these feelings big time. That’s the reason I won’t complain about the lyrics-related restrictions. And there’s another thing the New Jersey-based fellows do exceptionally well, and that’s the fade-out chords or exiting notes right at the end of a track. The sustain of the strings is awesome, and whatever mood was presented mere seconds ago is undoubtedly increased threefold by these licks. And yet there’s one particular room for improvement, even more so since the band already shows on this very album that they’re capable of delivering it, and that’s the chorus-related polyphony. Vincent Minervino is present on all vocal tracks, and that’s fine by me, but why not spice a few more choruses with the help of Aaron Leonovich in the veins of Sunset Motel and of course Then She Kissed Me? Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want a barbershop quartet-infused Beach Boys-suggesting ecclesial surf anthem; just the occasional accentuation or complemental stress of a syllable or motif. Despite these minor quibbles, The Brigantines deliver a great picture of a surfer’s way of life. It may be clichéd, true, but that’s pretty much expected or even mandatory in order to aurally paint a moony picture of sunset beaches and adventurous wave rides.
The band’s Twitter handle is the_brigantines.
Exotica Review 122: The Brigantines – Vacation! (2012). Originally published on Sep. 15, 2012 at AmbientExotica.com.