Beach Slang should be the king of a certain type of sound, but then The Deadbeat Bang of Heartbreak City hit its wall.
As the force behind Beach Slang, James Alex provides a valuable role in the music world. He has the age in perspective to write angsty, old fashioned rock ‘n’ roll that knows its place and its utility. Where’s there’s a need for cathartic grime-mucking – the need to come up for air in a dank and graffitied bathroom – Alex can walk you through it. A Loud Bash of Teenage Feelings described this assault and then performed it excellently. Alex’s Quiet Slang recordings found surprising depth in this approach. Beach Slang should be the king of a certain type of sound.
But then The Deadbeat Bang of Heartbreak City hit its wall. It’s not that the band hasn’t moved forward. The production change alone makes the new music noteworthy, and, by the way, Replacements bassist Tommy Stinson shows up to help Alex carry that group’s mantle. Alex still follows Paul Westerberg, but he picks up a smattering of late ’70s and early ’80s influences, glamming a little here, metalling a little there.
Unfortunately, it feels redundant at this point, not because it’s been done before but because Beach Slang just varies that one thing it does. Where Alex previously added a personalized twist on old influences – a knowing but still earnest trip into rock ‘n’ roll angst – he now just performs new iterations of himself. Instead of reworking the ‘Mats approach to music and life, he now acts out a mirror of his own music. Tracks like “Born to Raise Hell” aren’t awful, but they’re predictable and empty signifiers, music that exists to acknowledge that music like this exists.
The group remains good enough that much of the album is still fun. Beach Slang still blows off steam as well as anybody else. When Alex sings, “Rock ‘n’ roll’s my favorite sin/ Man, I don’t know if I’m good at it/ But I’m too in love or dumb to quit,” he articulates the purpose behind all of Deadbeat and the experience of many of its listeners. “Bam Rang Rang” follows with energizing blast of guitar, all leather jackets and spilled beer.
In the middle of the album, “Nobody Say Nothing” slows everything down for a meditation on an absent father. Alex’s vitriol makes sense, and the music complicates the experience. That song shifts into the strings of “Nowhere Bus” and its despairing mantra. The pause in the album works by bringing the heart, and not just the performance of attitude, back to the record. These two tracks suggest the depths from which the rest of Beach Slang’s work finds its cause.
On this album, though, Alex doesn’t often respond fully to that need. “Stiff,” for all its attempts at (kinky? Ironic?) lasciviousness would be eye-rolling either way. There’s no actual sleaze here, just an acknowledgment that somewhere sleaze exists. The disc closes with “Bar No One,” a slow look at mortality that requests, “Make sure I look pretty laying in my grave.” The song hints at bigger issues: the limits of superficiality, the suppression of hidden depths and the development of an arch character. Alex does well to leave those issues untouched as his singular singer contemplates passing. It’s a nice exit, offering a strange mood a calm uneasiness. As Beach Slang moves forward, maybe it can find rejuvenation by going into more difficult places rather than just telling us it rocks. We get it, but it can keep doing that even while challenging its listeners.