The Growlers – Chinese Fountain

written by: September 16, 2014
Album-art-for-Chinese-Fountain-by-The-Growlers Release Date: September 23, 2014


Self-dubbed beach goth band The Growlers don’t make the best first impression. The band’s sound is familiar—R.E.M.’s jangle by way of the flamboyant brooders of ’80s new wave, and the lo-fi scuzziness of ’00s indie rock—and it could regress without refinement into the dozens of bands melding the surf and the streets. However, with Chinese Fountain, The Growlers find an atmospheric sound that’s referential while still original and refreshingly cohesive.

With a penchant for magical realism, dripping romanticism, and an expansive musical palate that covers everything from dub to ’60s pop, the band’s fourth album demonstrates a nuanced, matured band that just needs to lyrically stretch its legs. The Growlers’ songwriting sometimes feels like a boring story written by a great author.

Singer Brooks Nielson repeatedly shows his ability to write a memorable line, but the lyrics are always in the service of the same three or four narratives.

Stage setter “Big Toe” sounds like a disheveled, decades younger version of The Walkmen with its rough shuffle and Nielson’s malted vocals. Though where The Walkmen trafficked in a gentlemanly edginess, The Growlers’ stomp feels ominous, evoking The Clash’s “London Calling.” That grime is only magnified by Nielson’s vocals, whose timbre encompasses everything from the croak of latter-day Bob Dylan to an asthmatic Alex Turner from the Arctic Monkeys.

Desperation seeps into Nielson’s voice on the lush seaside lope of “Black Memories,” which favorably recalls Santo & Johnny’s transcendent “Sleepwalk,” while he adopts a plainspoken sneer on the excellent “Chinese Fountain.” Buoyed by an angling riff, appealingly chintzy keyboards, and tight but never antiseptic production, “Chinese Fountain” is the best argument for The Growlers’ newfound audio fidelity. (This is the first album the band has recorded in a proper studio.)

“Dull Boy” similarly sounds full-bodied with its Real Estate-style afternoon lull and chunky chords that would feel at home on a Lee “Scratch” Perry record.“Going Gets Tuff” is even more strongly dub-influenced with its hiccuping melody and glittering chords. It’s also unexpectedly poignant as Nielson tells a story capable of doubling as a pep talk or working class poetry. Nielson sells colorful and unpretentious lines like, “Unsure of where I’m bound/So I sink another round,” with ease and grit.

The album mostly broaches familiar thematic territory—traumatic romances, weening for “the one”—but The Growlers mostly avoid the pratfalls of some of its contemporaries that ape its influences’ songwriting too faithfully.

It’s clear Nielson admires the courtship flourishes of ’60s pop—maybe a little too much—as nearly every song is about missing a flame or lamenting loose women.

Other rare times though, he tosses out dark humor like, “She’s got me at ten times my weight/In a vegetable state,” or, “The internet is bigger than Jesus and John Lennon/And nobody wants to know where we’re headed,” on “Black Memories” and “Chinese Fountain,” respectively.

It’s those bursts of personality that balance out the sometimes overwhelming dreary vibe of the album. Nielson’s stories of woe lacks self-awareness as the blame seems to always aim elsewhere and worse. The songs often loop around to the same myopic male romances plaguing the genre. This sameness seems all the more glaring considering how much verve and creativity Nielson has for turn of phrases elsewhere.

This issue is perfectly evident in the rippling “Rare Hearts” which features the lines: “Give the stars to the lonely city/Give the ocean to the country/I ain’t seen anything quite so pretty as a girl who loves me.” Those first two lines are wonderful—evocative and surreal, but also startling in their simplicity. The last line takes the band back to the same well that’s been dry for years.

If The Growlers can advance lyrical concerns beyond toxic relationships and life-saving romances, this group will fully become a band to be reckoned with. Until then, The Growlers will merely be another very good surf-rock band on the verge of greatness.

The Growlers – Chinese Fountain tracklist:

  1. “Big Toe”
  2. “Black Memories”
  3. “Chinese Fountain”
  4. “Dull Boy”
  5. “Good Advice”
  6. “Going Gets Tuff”
  7. “Magnificent Sadness”
  8. “Love Test”
  9. “Not the Man”
  10. “Rare Hearts”
  11. “Purgatory Drive”