In Brief: Pure, unadulterated 80s synthpop nostalgia. I’m not even gonna pretend there’s a huge amount of depth to it. But these guys use their arsenal of samples and synthesized sounds in creative and highly addictive ways.
Doesn’t the name Ghost Beach make you think of a cutesy Nintendo game? Maybe I just played one too many rounds of Super Mario Kart in my teenage years when I could have been reading books, because as it turns out, this electronic pop duo from Brooklyn actually got their name from a book. More specifically, a Goosebumps book. I think I just barely missed that fad, but it almost would have been age appropriate. And speaking of missing trends, I must be going through the sort of discovery process now that other fans of electronic music were going through in the 80s, because whenever a modern band comes forth with their loud-and-proud impression of an 80s synthpop outfit, I find myself smiling at the very same sorts of sounds I used to make fun of. Ghost Beach, in describing their own sound, likes to call it “tropical grit pop”. I can see that in the sense that they’ve compiled the sort of summer soundtrack you’d want to listen to while driving down a coastal highway, in a convertible, preferably wearing really big sunglasses that you insist on calling “shades”, because you don’t need them for visibility purposes; you just want to look rad. Shoot, just look at the cover of this thing. It’s called Blonde and the splash of warm pastel colors looks like the front cover of a notebook the hot girl sitting next to me in junior high would have carried around. All that’s missing is some neon graffiti scrawled across the front, and… aw crap, now I’m getting the 21 Jump Street theme song stuck in my head. This isn’t that cheesy. But it’s headed in that general direction.
Alright, so I may still gently poke fun at these sorts of bands even when I’m fully admitting that I enjoy their music. It’s just a reflex. (No, Duran Duran fans, not that kind of reflex). You hear this sort of music and you know you can expect it to be fairly easygoing, probably not too deep on the lyrical side of things, but definitely a good mood-setter for a Throwback Thursday. I figure a lot of bands are doing this stuff nowadays, either because they’re pining for the simplicity of their childhood, or maybe even because they were born after the 80s and missed out on all of the color-clashing excess. I can relate. Sometimes I hear the kind of soft rock from the early 70s that gets derided for being safe and sterile by today’s standards, and I get the warm fuzzies for an era I never experienced. As shameless nostalgia goes, Ghost Beach is just a slight bit easier to take at face value than their across-the-pond counterparts in Empire of the Sun, who aim to take you to more exotic places with their music, but are sometimes fall into that “uncanny valley” where they’re too goofy to take seriously, but not quite goofy enough to come across as an intentional parody. Having a clearer vocalist helps. Josh Ocean (no relation to Frank or Billy, as far as I know) can get raspy and a little hyperactive when an up-tempo song calls for it, but he doesn’t fall into the trap of being overly melodramatic when the band goes into ballad mode, because… wait, they never actually do go into ballad mode. Mid-tempo’s about the slowest you’ll get out of Blonde, and while that makes a lot of it bleed together on first listen, it also indicates that the duo knows its strengths and fully intends on playing to them.
And since you’ve got two guys in the band who like to mess around with synths, and the other guy who (presumably) doesn’t sing handling a lot of the other multi-instrumental duties, those strengths are mostly found in the area of sound manipulation. It isn’t rocket science to take your buddy’s voice and pitch-shift it in amusing ways, or to throw together a super-catchy breakbeat. But Doc Mendelsohn does these things like his life depends on it, and often, these are the features that really help a song to stand out from its surroundings. While guitars and bass are present and noticeable in many songs, sometimes the defining hook will come from a bit that Ocean has just sung, which then gets warped and chopped up to serve purposes beyond what might have been originally intended when it was sung. The group tries quite a bit harder than your average nostalgic band that might just throw some synths into an otherwise standard pop/rock song for dramatic or humorous effect, and it shows in how engrossing the soundscapes of these 12 tracks can get. At the same time, the pace of the album does start to sag a bit in the back half, despite or perhaps because of the lack of true “slow songs”… at some point I do start to wonder if there are more dimensions to the duo’s creative process than this. But Blonde is their freshman album, and it’s a strong start even with that handicap, so I’m more than happy to give them some time to figure that out.
1. Moon Over Japan
The opening tracks teases me a bit with that title – there’s no mention of Japan or a hint of anything Japanese in the lyrics, so the setting for this tale of heartbreak may as well be anywhere. The cheesy but effective four-note keyboard riff and the huge buzzing synths that comes whooshing out of nowhere right on top of it are early indicators that these guys aren’t ashamed of their nostalgia (the band has admitted that this is sort of their ode to Tears For Fears). Ocean’s vocals are impassioned enough to make it work, and they fit the setting well enough to make me imagine that he’s the star of some corny music video, rockin’ out on his keyboards with a windswept mane of blond hair or something. (I have no idea what these dudes really look like.) There’s a slight hint of reggae in how the keyboards are played during the chorus, as filtered through several years’ worth of white-boy synthpop, so I can see how the “tropical” descriptor fits even though it’s not the first word that comes to mind. This one seems like an easygoing start, but it feels like it’s just starting to reach for epic-ness by the time it wraps up.
This song was how I first discovered the band, after Trails and Ways covered it in their laid-back Brazilian indie pop style and I decided to look up the original for context. It’s a wisely chosen single for Ghost Beach, because the guitars are up there front and center with a fun riff that might just barely sneak across the border between decades, into the jangle-pop that delighted us in the early 90s. The synths are still flashing about like glowsticks by the time the chorus arrives, of course, so there’s still no mistaking which decade has most captured these guys’ imaginations. On the surface, this is a simple song about the “miracle” of falling in love again, but the chorus hints that it might be a delusion – “It’s a miracle, even if it’s in my head.” It’s an ode to the power of positive thinking, I suppose – live like you believe you don’t have to be enslaved to your mundane daily routine, and some exotically different might just fall out of the sky. Boy, that sounds like the world’s cheesiest philosophy now that I’ve gone and type it, but that’s sort of how this music makes me feel. It’s goofy and a bit naive, but a part of me smiles at the notion that on some lucky days, the world actually looks like that for a little while. The bridge to this one is especially fun, with Doc banging around on his synthetic jungle of percussion sounds while Ocean rips some funky bass licks. Sort of like what you might have heard from U2 if early songs of theirs like “I Will Follow” and “Gloria” were far less serious.
3. Been There Before
I’m so distracted by what I’ll call the “Nick Jr. synths” at the beginning of this song – seriously, they sound like the opening to some kids show with furry puppets or something – that I don’t notice at first how Ghost Beach has pulled the same trick three tracks in a row. The note they start on isn’t where the first beat is counted, so just as you start bobbing your head to what you perceive as the rhythm, the drums and/or lyrics kick on and you realize you’re off a bit. It’s a teeny little thing, but it signals that one or both of these guys are percussionists at heart, I guess, because that’s totally a trick that a drummer would pull. Anyway, this one doesn’t impress me as much with its rubbery sounds ricocheting all over the place at first, until the band kicks it into high gear during the bridge with a pretty darn good “let’s try out every little sound and distortion effect that a 30-year-old keyboard could have made” type solo. The lyrics here are a bit more abstract, apparently describing a couple for whom change is withering away at their love for each other. He’s trying to cling to the familiar – the things he’s known and loved for years – while she’s left reeling at this new ocean of possibilities exploding all around her… or something.
4. Close Enough
This one instantly puts a smile on my face. The chopped-up vocal sample that drives it along is one of the most addictive things that’s been cooked up on a laptop in recent years, and the duo just outdoes themselves in the rhythm department, taking what could be a relatively straightforward mid-tempo song and spicing it up with a lot of breakbeats and other neat little programming tricks, even subtly changing up the time signature in the breaks between the verses just to mess with you. While I could have sworn I’ve heard female backing vocals elsewhere on the album, this is the only song to bring them to the forefront, by way of featured vocalist Noosa, who I’ve never heard of, but who holds her own in this funky little duet. She seems to personify the role of the woman described in the previous song, who is morphing into something her man no longer recognizes, and in the chorus he begs her, “Get back in your heart! Get out of your ghost!” I’m not 100% sure what he means by that, but it’s awfully darn compelling nonetheless. Hands down, this is my favorite track on the album, right up until its odd ending that might make you think your CD player was skipping, at least if we still lived in an age where we were fascinated with those newfangled contraptions.
5. On My Side
The abrupt ending of “Close Enough” is the perfect bridge to the synths that take off running at the beginning of this one. Once again, the yearning for escape is off the charts, as the band described their ideal retreat in words that may well explain the name they chose for themselves: “I belong on a neon beach in the sun/It’s gonna carry me through the nigh/ With the shadows free we’ll shine/We’ll shine forever!” Once again it’s acknowledged within the song that this may well be one big, sick delusion, but he wants assurance from the one he loves that even if she can see through it, she’ll remain by his side and humor his weird little fantasy. Lots of fun little keyboard and vocal samples fly in a bizarre slipstream of sound, keeping this song moving at a brisk pace throughout.
6. Every Time We Touch
The metallic, clanging percussion that opens this one makes me think they should have used it in “Moon Over Japan”. I mean, isn’t that what we naively thought Asian music sounded like back then, when it seemed like there was a never-ending fountain of novelty songs about the Far East? Thankfully there’s no gratuitous Japanese here, nor is there anything other than straightforward love song lyrics, so once the bouncy bass and vocal sampling take over, we can forget about any self-styled “exotic” aspirations and just enjoy another fun up-tempo song for what it is. Ocean’s occasionally scratchy vocals have their little outbursts here and there in other songs, but here, he sounds like he’s itching to be Michael Jackson, dropping a fair amount of “Ooh!”s and “Ow!”s in between the lyrics for extra spice. The sampled bit that repeats the song’s title sounds like the sort of effect you might hear when grabbing a power-up in a video game, and of course they get to go nuts with that in the bridge, bringing in some hand claps and practically getting a whole retro rave started. It’s incredibly silly, but also incredibly fun.
7. Without You
The reggae influence shows most strongly in this track – and again, don’t let me fool you into thinking that means anything other than keyboards plinking along on the downbeat to give the song a bit of a beach vibe. It’s definitely more UB40 than Bob Marley. Strange as it may sound, the fusion of a vaguely Caribbean rhythm with synthpop actually produces one of the album’s most intoxicating songs, which thankfully sounds nothing like Empire of the Sun’s “Without You”, because we don’t need more reasons to get the two bands confused. Sure, the basic idea is the same – a guy’s torn up and convinced he could never love again now that the woman he’s devoted his life to has up and left him. It’s hard to feel too heavy-hearted on his behalf when the music is, once again, so darn joyous. The word “baby” is pretty much the focal point of the song – but if you’re gonna trot out the most used and abused word in all of pop music, you might as well make it memorable, and that’s what Doc does, taking Josh’s vocal and breaking it down into what I like to call the “baby solo”, pitch-shifting the word to extremes and letting it bounce off of every reflective surface around it. I like to imagine that he does this with a keytar in concert. Because you just need the visual of something that awesomely cheesy to go along with it. Much as I may tease the band for doing goofy stuff like this, I have to admit that it’s an overwhelmingly clever arrangement of sounds. It’s stuff like this that helps the band to stand out in an increasingly crowded pool of 80s revivalists.
8. Tear Us Apart
Here we finally come to a point where the angst in the lyrics is actually matched by the performance. While musically it’s still too glossy to even approach “gritty”, Josh’s vocals are purposefully strained and bleached by the post-production, creating an unsettling effect that will certainly startle anyone who was expecting pleasant, breezy pop music all the way through. The lyrics here aren’t drastically different from most of the album – maybe a tad more blunt about the pain he’s going through. It’s got the album’s only profanity when he seethes, “When I got my sh*t down and I’m ready to start/I can paint my picture in the vein of your heart”, but since the vocals are so distorted, you’re not likely to notice it anyway – I only did because Spotify had this one tagged as “Explicit”, which is funny because if this were a movie that would warrant a PG rating at worst. The ringing guitars are more prominent in the chorus than they have been in most of the keyboard-dominated songs on this album, and they’re naggingly similar to some riff from a retro pop song I could have sworn I was listening to circa the turn of the century, but for the life of me I can’t remember what song it is, so that’s really gonna bug me now.
As much as I’m a huge fan of the “wall of sound” and love to hear artists explore the limits of how layers of computerized sound can be used to express emotion, occasionally I realize that an artist is getting diminishing returns from it. This would be that song. It’s not bad on the surface – there’s an interestingly, glitchy little keyboard riff leading it along and it’s got a chilled-out mid-tempo vibe. But then the band just goes way off the deep end with this irritating “skipping” effect – sort of like what I mentioned earlier at the end of “Close Enough”, except that it gets used to fill in every single bit of dead space between lyrics or other instrumental bits, to the point where they sound like kids in a toy store rather than discerning artists who know that just because you have the power doesn’t mean you should continuously use it. I can’t muster anything beyond tepid interest in this song because of it – the chorus doesn’t have enough zing to it to make me hope that a toned-down ballad version of the song would fare any better, and the lyrical idea of two people fading into each other isn’t supported at all by the cold and harsh effects of the electronic sampling.
10. First Time
On the other hand, there’s this song which doesn’t have any overbearing sound effects to bug me, but which also just sort of gurgles along at medium speed, not really doing much to retain my interest either. The lyrics here sort of bug me – how can you need someone for the first time? Or at least, if you’ve identified that you need them and you didn’t before, but you’re asking them to come back to you, doesn’t that just give away that you didn’t need them before? I guess I get how a person can go through the motions of a relationship and not have the meaning of it “click” until later… but it isn’t very flattering, the way it’s explained here. About the only interesting thing that happens musically is an unexpected guitar solo that bleeds into frame during the bridge – it’s sort of washed out by some sort of wave function that I’m sure helps it to fit the aesthetic of the song, but which also feels like it’s obscuring a rare moment of non-pre-programmed instrumental talent. (I fully appreciate the talent that goes into programming computers and keyboards to play back and manipulate sounds in certain ways. I’m just saying, it’s weird to suddenly focus on a live instrument and then downplay it.)
11. Empty Streets
the end of this album, quite refreshingly, seems to say “screw the angst”, because it defiantly ends on two very upbeat and seemingly lighthearted songs. The first one might even show a bit of wry self-awareness as the realization dawns on a middle-aged fellow that he and the decidedly younger women he’s been trying to woo are from two different worlds: “Pretty born in the 90’s/They don’t know much ’bout ’85/They’re alive, I’m barely breathing/Wanna remember what that feels like.” The chorus, with its delirious falsetto and its longing for genuine happiness, sound like the sort of thing Passion Pit might attempt.
12. Too Young
The heavily distorted guitar comes back for the finale, which reminds us that Ghost Beach knows nothing of gloppy ballads and prefers to sprint across the finish line instead. They do it here in the bounciest way possible, and I’m gonna sound like a hypocrite for saying that I like the stuttering guitar effects here after criticizing the overuse of a similar sound effect in “Faded” and then remarking on the guitar being hidden behind a sound effect in “First Time”. Maybe this sort of thing just works better in a faster song, when the intent is to jack up the energy level. This one sort of flips the previous songs’ concern about age on its head – now the guy is on the “too young to know better” side of the equation, and the song is sort of a carefree ode to the careless stupidity of youth. It sounds more like the kind of thing you’d end side A of a fun pop album on, rather than the entire album, but that’s a small nitpick. It would probably make a great concert finale, as Doc chooses to take Ocean’s already manic chorus vocal and run rampant with it, culminating in a bizarre and delightful little breakdown that oughta leave the crowd clamoring for an encore.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Moon Over Japan $1
Been There Before $1
Close Enough $2
On My Side $1
Every Time We Touch $1.25
Without You $1.50
Tear Us Apart $.75
First Time $.50
Empty Streets $1
Too Young $1.25
Josh Ocean: Vocals, bass, synthesizers
Eric “Doc” Mendelsohn: Guitars, synthesizers, sampling
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