That was rhetorical. Besides, what is surf rock, anyway? Good question.
Essentially, it’s pop music. Throw some guy a pristine tan line, an acoustic guitar, a seemingly constant five o’clock shadow and maybe even a harmonica, and what you have is the epitome of surf rock. You can’t quite call if soft rock — that’s reserved for Delilah and her adult contemporary friends. You can’t quite call it the blues (even though everyone who falls in this particular category insists it is) — that label belongs to the Muddy Waters and the Little Walters of the world (pop artists claiming such roots is borderline disrespectful at this point). And you can’t quite call it soul music because … well, come on, now. You really think a dude who could double as a Gap model has the musical ability to pen something as powerful as, say, a Bill Withers or a Marvin Gaye?
So surf rock, it is. Jack Johnson. G. Love. Even the now-detestable Jason Mraz. It’s a cool kind of sound, made for bonfires on beaches and summer parties that only the most beautiful of people are invited to. It prides itself on grooves and good vibes. There’s nothing particularly offensive about it, really, and, all things considered, the genre is harmless. Frat boys and pretty girls. Blankets and sandals. Fedoras and surf boards. Amphitheaters and summer package tours. It’s all there and it combines for something almost as American as apple pie at this point.
Enter Jason Ager and his two-piece backing band, C.O.P.O. Their latest release, “Born To Surf,” is about as American as anyone can get, if we choose to use the previously discussed guidelines as a barometer. The acoustic guitar is there. Organs and pianos make appearances. And maybe even most importantly of all, Ager himself looks the part, with his unshaved face and suspenders, on the album cover.
The only problem with his brand of surf rock is that throughout the seven songs that paint his most recent effort, he lacks flexibility and ambition, thus forcing “Born To Surf” to fall into an unfortunate string of predictability and boringness that leaves listeners hoping for just a little bit more than what the singer-songwriter offers. It’s not a bad release by any stretch of the imagination. It’s just mundane and at times uninteresting.
“The Girlfriend Song,” for instance, has all the potential to be a fine bit of pop music, but in spite of the “So whenever you look back on this day/ Just remember how you let me slip away” refrain that will stick with you for days, the singer refuses to expand on his initial thought. What we are left with is a mere mid-tempo, radio-friendly song that does little to differentiate itself from a Ted Garber B-side.
Speaking of that other local singer-songwriter, Ager evokes the sounds of some of Garber’s material with “Closer the Bone” and the lazy-sounding title track. On the former, Ager calls on organs and pianos to provide a light-hearted ode to women that sadly comes across as immature and raunchy rather than fun and playful (his attempt at rapping doesn’t necessarily do him any favors either). The latter, meanwhile, sets the tone for the record with its laid-back acoustic pop funk, though it also suggests that there might not be much variation around the corner, and as previously noted, such a presumption disappointingly proves to be true.
The bright spots come when the singer decides to explore uncharted territory, in spite of however light he might tread while doing so. “Chain Bridge Road” is a lot of fun, its double-time beat accentuating his groovy guitar playing, and the move to ditch the rest of his band for the most part serving Ager, the artist, well. “Somethin Sweet” allows horns into the party and the result is a welcome change of pace to the straight-forward tracks that paint the rest of the album. The song’s quirky feel is even a little reminiscent of another local standout, The Knolly Moles.
Actually, throwing Ted Garber, Jason Ager and The Knolly Moles on a tour together would probably do each act some good. Garber could pick up a few pointers on acoustic funk from Ager. The Moles could learn how to tighten up their sound from Garber. And Ager could maybe broaden his musical horizon by borrowing a few arrangements from The Moles. Because as “Born To Surf” proves, Jason Ager and The C.O.P.O. shouldn’t necessarily be devoting all of their time to perfect their current sound; they’ve already got that down. In fact, experimenting a bit with the age-old formula of surf rock could do the singer and his friends more good than they might even be able to realize at this point.
Remember: Being born — even if it is only to surf — is the easy part. The process of growing up is when things finally start to get interesting. And with any luck, Ager will keep such an idiom in mind the next time he decides to step into a recording studio.
** 2 STARS OUT OF 4 **