When the opening licks of “Widows” first came over my speakers, I let out a little sigh of resignation. Here was yet another Best Coast, an ironically retro surf-rocker with dreamy, lo-fi guitars and perky drumbeats. The next hour of my life was going to be a tedious exercise.
But then, seven measures in, a revelation. Tim Oxton’s voice, sounding like a deranged Johnny Cash with hints of Tom Waits, bursts to life as he delivers the first lyric: “Take my hand / And jump with me / Oh I’m waiting / For the day I die.” This bizarre juxtaposition of sunny instrumentals and deep, death-rattle vocals is what sets Feral Youth, the debut album of Oxton’s solo project Wakes, apart from what has become a pretty oversaturated crowd.
It really is amazing how much a single stylistic choice can color your perception of an entire album. If Oxton was an unfettered tenor, a la Vampire Weekend or Tokyo Police Club, I think it would’ve been fairly easy to dismiss his work as uninspired or derivative. The “lethargic Beach Boys” trope has been done before.
When presented with such starkly contrasting vocals, though, every constituent part gets cast in a different light. The cheerful, beachy guitars take on an air of desperate optimism. The tachycardiac percussion begins to convey more anxiety than glee. And when the otherworldly synthesizers come in on “Borrowed Time,” they feel like a brief, futile respite for our weary musician.
What’s more, there are a few moments where the naïve enthusiasm seems genuine. While I wouldn’t go so far as to call “Two Step Heels” a happy song (“Oh you take my heart / And you crush it in your hand / With your two step heels / You’ll tear me down again”), the instrumentals sound like a fifties high school dance on acid. Even the vocal delivery is toned down a bit from its usual gloominess, perhaps suggesting that if things are going to be horrible no matter what, you might as well lose yourself in a good time while you can.
All in all, Feral Youth is an impressive debut. It’s great to see some more talented bands coming out of Boston, especially as they delve into styles that are typically of a western persuasion. Wakes has crafted something at once original and adopted, and based on his prolific EP releases (four since last November), we can expect that there will be quite a lot more where this came from.