May 23, 2022

Rollin with the Surfragettes


Surf music, as a genre, has had an unusual trajectory. It started in the early 1960s with Dick Dale and Link Wray. Each played staccato instrumental music that replicated the thrill of surfing that exemplifies the genre. Dale, especially, set the template of surf music with his Middle Eastern and rock influences. But, as the saying goes, that was then, and this is now. By the late 1960s, surf was nothing more than an historical blip on the pop music radar. Then, in a weird twist of fate, it all came rushing back in the early 1990s with bands like Los Straightjackets. In just a few years, surf revival had split into a dozen or so subgenres and taken up residence amongst the Tiki, pin up, and hot rod crowds, as well as beach bars everywhere.

One of the better surf revival bands of the past ten years has been Toronto’s Surfragettes. I had the opportunity to see them for the first time at the Ohana Tiki festival in Lake George, back in 2017. At that point they did mostly covers of new wave and pop songs, but in a surf style. Their rendition of Echo beach by Martha and the Muffins was a standout piece. Since then, the Surfragettes have been writing their own music and recording, starting with their 2017 eponymous EP. All that brings us to their first full length album, the recently released Roller Fink.

To say that Roller Fink is fun, is like suggesting that ice cream is just a cold treat. Yes, it is fun but so much more. Roller Fink has elements of a concept album, themed around (you guessed it) a roller rink. It starts with a 16 second announcement that would be heard at the opening of a roller rink. It will be instantly recognizable to people of a certain age who grew up in the suburbs. If you’ve ever been in a 1970s era roller disco, you will probably have an immediate flashback. Needless to say, it sets the mood perfectly. The album immediately jams into the first song, “Warm Up”. “Warm Up” is perfect for roller skating with a mid-tempo song with an easy-going vibe. The next song, “Roxy Roller”, is reverb laden surf song but without that clipped pipeline sound common to surf bands. Instead, it sways, like a roller skater’s hips do when they are moving across the track. “Slush Puppy” and “Snowball” are similar in feel, though the latter is laden with blues licks. The title track “Roller Fink” is fast, but more like racing than surfing, once again with prodigious blues riffs. Its placement in the middle of the album amongst more mid-tempo songs also helps keep the album from getting too slow and, hence, ponderous.

Songs like “Snowball” highlight the excellent musicianship of The Surfragettes. “Surfer’s Slide”, for example, has rapid fire guitar picking that would sound terrible if the guitarists weren’t able to perform at a high level. The Surfragettes always sound tight, constantly meshing individual instruments into a well timed whole. They are never sloppy, and everything meshes perfectly. The bluesy “Train Kept a Rollin'” requires superior timing and retro rock sensibility. This is not gimmicky surf music which, unfortunately, can be all too common in this genre.

There are some classic sounds on Roller Fink. “Couch Surfing”, for example, is traditional surf, in the style of The Ventures. “Slush Puppy” is a quick (but not fast) paced ball of reverb that just jumps, like good surf music should. In addition, the band does include some of their trademark covers. The version of “Heart of Glass” – which has both disco and surf elements to begin with – is exceptional. It is exactly the type of song a late 70s teen roller disco would have played. The cover of The Beatles “She Loves You” is well intentioned but not as exciting. This is a song that’s been widely copied, including as a surf tune. It’s not a bad song, but it doesn’t fit the album nearly as well as “Heart of Glass”.

I need to admit a bias – I love The Surfragettes. They are a fun, exciting live act, and very talented. The good news is that all that comes through in this album. With Roller Fink, the band also establishes their own style with a more leisurely pace and bluesy demeaner. Roller Fink establishes The Surfragettes as more than just another surf band. Given that this is just their first album, I’m excited to see what the future brings for The Surfragettes.