At 16 I took my first trip to the outer-west reaches of Berkeley, CA, with 924 Gilman St. plugged into the GPS of my friend’s faded, sea-green minivan. It turned out that would also be my last trip there, as I was disappointed to find what appeared to be merely a smoldering vestige of the fabled punk venue it had once been. I learned an important lesson that night: musical legacies don't live in buildings, they're passed on in the music itself.
924 Gilman's DIY punk credo nurtured bands like Rancid and (most famously) Green Day, and the Bay Area venue was a haven for indie punk fans through the '80s and '90s. Today, support for San Francisco's garage rockers comes from independent labels like the relatively nascent Death Records, and the Northern California pop-punk sound is alive and well in the music they’re putting out. The new split EP featuring Past Life and Smiles (out today) proves that the spirit of underground SF rock still kicks.
As it turns out, Past Life are actually based in New York. But the melodic, pop-tinged power chords of the driving opener “Sever Your Love” are undeniably reminiscent of Dookie. From there, we get two additional songs from the fledgling band—formed just this past January—that showcase a bedrock of punk paired with playful chord progressions that hook and reel you in. “Hate Bloomer” brings SoCal stoners Wavves to mind, especially with listless lyrics like “Hanging around, weighing me down / Wasting away every day.” On the other hand, the wistful “Ojai 1” evokes Pavement. And true to their roots, the longest song here clocks in at 2:20.
Pairing Past Life with San Francisco-based Smiles was a brilliant choice on the part of Death Records, although the second half of this EP leans decidedly more towards a surf-and-sun aesthetic. Side B opens with Smiles’ “EBK,” which at first is an easy, minimal song that frames its warm vocals nicely, a mixture of Brian Wilson and Elliott Smith (and very akin to the timbre of fellow San Franciscan Christopher Owens, Girls’ lead singer). The song erupts towards the end, though, and proves the band can scale from lethargic to shrill in less than three minutes.
Meanwhile, “Sad Faces” is a steady, upbeat number with a confident chorus that matter-of-factly declares “I don’t care what you think of me / Hello.” The closing song, “Dark ★,” is much spacier (as evidenced by the title), awash in reverb and generally a better indication of what the rest of Smiles’ output sounds like to date.
Overall, this split is a fantastic introduction to two bands that are just getting started. Past Life and Smiles both have plenty of room to grow, but each group has laid a solid foundation that harkens as much to their predecessors as to various contemporaries. I’m excited to see what their futures hold.