Basically, there are two kinds of people in this world: Those who believe that rock ’n’ roll (and, by extension, all great art) can save our lives — that it is, indeed, as necessary as oxygen, food, or water — and those who consider it mere entertainment. If you read this blog, you know where I stand. You probably know where Lou Reed stood, singing about his distaff alter-ego Jenny in “Rock and Roll”, dancing to that “fine, fine music” while “her life was saved by rock ’n’ roll.” And if you don’t know it yet, you definitely need to know where James Alex of Beach Slang stands.
“Play it loud, play it fast/Play me something that will always last,” he demands in the opening lines of “Future Mixtape for the Art Kids,” the first track on A Loud Bash of Teenage Feelings, the Philadelphia group’s second album. “Play it soft, play it quiet/Play me something that will save my life.”
Late to the party with the group’s potent 2015 debut The Things We Do to Find People Who Feel Like Us, I was first converted by the group’s live show during SXSW last March: “Like Paul Westerberg, bandleader James Alex walks a fine line between poetic and pathetic,” I wrote, “and in Austin, he did so gracefully while trying to calm a crowd that slam-danced frantically in front of the stage. (Slam-dancing! In 2016!) Alex skillfully grabbed control by ‘slowing things down’ with the brilliant ‘Too Late to Die Young,’ crooning the very Westerberg lines, ‘Too young to die, too late to die young/I try to fight, but get high and give up.’”
Some fans are saying the first album found Alex obsessed with living life to the fullest, while the new one is preoccupied with death and dying. But the lines quoted above sort of put the lie to that, and in any event, those are flip sides of the same coin, aren’t they? A hard-hearted cynic and/or someone who isn’t really listening (or admitting how undeniable are the band’s rhythms and irresistible its melodies) might say that Alex is a bit, um, self-important, or trying too hard to be the punk-poet philosopher like his idol, the oft-name-dropped Westerberg. But the earnestness and sincerity he displays onstage, in interviews, or indeed in every note he growls cannot be faked, and the School of Westerberg has produced few other graduates capable of a moment as great as “Answering Machine” or “Unsatisfied.” And on this album, as on the last, Beach Slang delivers the goods. And yes, they really are that good. Just listen.
Listen for an interview and a rare acoustic performance by James Alex of Beach Slang on an upcoming episode of Sound Opinions.
Beach Slang, A Loud Bash of Teenage Feelings (Polyvinyl)
Rating on the 4-star scale: 4 stars