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Susan Surftone cooks up guitar magic on new EP

Susan Surftone strikes again with Reckoning EP
Susan Surftone strikes again with Reckoning EP
Susan Surftone

Reckoning by Susan Surftone


Surf rock isn’t dead. Not if Susan "Surftone" Yasinksi can help it.

Susan Surftone conjunes guitar magic for EP
Susan Surftone

Popularized by ocean-centric songs like The Surfaris’ “Wipeout” and The Ventures’ “Pipeline,” the genre exploded from the California coast in the early Sixties, coupling slick, Duane Eddy and Chuck Berry-inspired lead guitar with dance-ready rhythms. A lot of the tunes dispensed with vocals entirely, ditching “oh baby” melodramatics for primal beats and otherworldly guitar (or saxophone) hysterics.

Dick Dale—the self-proclaimed King of Surf Guitar—set a benchmark for the genre with the muscular “Misirlou,” whose reverb-saturated staccato guitar bounded over an insistent kick bass and sharp snare, not unlike an adrenaline junkie riding the waves off the Malibu shoreline. A trio of teenage brothers living in Hawthorne, California took note when starting up a band of their own. Calling themselves The Beach Boys, they worked bohemian lyrics, buoyant beats, and Berry-like guitar passages into four of their first five singles: “Surfin’,” “Surfin’ Safari,” “Surfin’ U.S.A,” and the eloquent “Surfer Girl.”

Movie composer John Barry also capitalized on the craze in 1962 by assigning a stuttering, mildly sinister guitar the leitmotif of the Monty Norman-penned theme in the premiere 007 film Dr. No in 1962. Like Dale’s Middle-Eastern flavored licks, the memorable spy riff (heard during the gun-barrel openings of many subsequent EON pictures) oozed foreign intrigue and bespoke Aquarian adventures in exotic lands.

But surf rock waned at the end of the Kennedy-Johnson years, with radio yielding to similarly-constructed tunes about fast cars (and faster women). Led by a quartet of mop-headed miscreants from Liverpool, The British Invasion signaled the end of one era—and the beginning of another.

Even then, Surftone was paying attention, jotting mental notes for later.

Vestiges of surf music resurfaced occasionally over subsequent decades. Guitarist East Bay Ray wove a lot of rapid-fire tremolo guitar bits into the music of (punk pioneers) The Dead Kennedys. Alternative rockers Smashmouth employed surf as schtick on the hits “All Star” and “Walkin’ on the Sun” in the Nineties, albeit with quirky keyboards as their focal point. Since then, bands like Los Straightjackets, The Mermen, and Man or Astro-Man incorporate surf’s angular guitar into their mainstream-eschewing mixes.

But New York-born Yasinksi is the real deal when it comes to furthering the spirit of sunshine-and-seawater guitar rock. Raised on a steady diet of Elvis and Beatles, she defied convention early on by learning how to write and perform electric guitar music instead of contenting herself with listening and dancing along (like all the other girls) to the day’s big boy bands.

Rocking out wasn’t Susan’s chosen profession: she attended law school at Boston University and took a job with the F.B.I. at the height of the Cold War before plugging in her guitar permanently. The federal government frowned upon side gigs at CBGB’s, so the secret agent / musician lead parallel lives, toiling for Uncle Sam by day—then going stealth at night to hone her chops in local pubs and clubs. But the tragic death of John Lennon in late 1980 galvanized the importance of music in Susan’s life. She tendered her resignation shortly thereafter.

Yasinski formed The Surftones in Rochester after playing axe in a New Wave rock combo (Black Tights) and a stint on the acoustic circuit. Reimagining the buoyant sounds of the surfin’ Sixties for modern audiences, her all-girl trio released several well-regarded instrumental albums on the German-based Gee Dee label (Without a Word, Thunderbeach, Bitchin’). Band members came and went throughout the 1990’s, but Susan’s lead guitar prowess was constant: Yasinski often channeled punk rock fire in her playing, and she didn’t shy away from saluting her influences (The Rolling Stones, Doors, Velvet Underground) in her original material. She even dedicated two entire albums to Beatles covers.

Yasinski traded one Coast for another at the turn of the century, relocating from The Big Apple to Portland, Oregon, where she launched a solo career. Produced by Steve Kravac (Blink 182, Pepper, MxPx), Shore successfully summonsed the spirit of the Sixties. Last year’s follow-up, Too Far, furthered only furthered her curriculum vitae, cementing Surftone as the preeminent female surf guitarist—if not one of the best female guitarists, period. Cue either disc and you’re immediately transported back to a time when the pinnacle of home décor consisted of turquoise wallpaper, saffron drapes, and polypropylene furniture. Hanna-Barbera cartoons like The Jetsons and Scooby-Doo dominated television airwaves—the former reinterpreting Mod living for an animated space age, the latter liberally sprinkling its “far out” mysteries with “groovy” hippy references. Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello offered escapist bliss in Beach Party and Beach Blanket Bingo . Elvis thrilled in Blue Hawaii and Clambake. A decade of pop culture is practically distilled in Susan’s mirthful measures.

But there’s nothing disingenuous about Surftone’s approach, and it’d be unfair (not to mention inaccurate) to dismiss her deft, sunblock-and-snorkel guitar style as gimmickry. Susan’s no knock-off. Rather than mimic, she manifests. As far as she’s concerned, Surf Rock isn’t a bygone style but a burgeoning, potent musical vernacular. We return to ‘60s spies for an analogy: Austin Powers and Maxwell Smart are well-known secret agents of cinema, but they were mostly kitsch instead of cool—and both ‘60s throwbacks written to lampooned the more suave and sophisticated James Bond and Derek Flint.

Susan’s no knock-off. Songs like “Jade,” “HuDu,” and “Jiffy Pop” might recall the days when go-go girls flitted in frilled miniskirts on Shindig! and Hullaballoo—but there’s also something undeniably now and in-the-moment about them, too. Surftone could probably net a fortune hawking orange juice, sunblock, or even cruise ship vacation packages with her tunes (one of her songs was featured in a Nissan car promo a couple years back), but we suspect she’s more concerned with selling good vibrations.

That aesthetic continues on Yasinki’s latest offering, Reckoning, available now from Acme Bros. Records.

The six-song EP provided Surftone with both challenge and catharsis; the guitarist wrote and recorded the music while recuperating from the sort of hand injury that’d sideline less tenacious players a year or two (if not permanently). Susan not only shreds on guitar once more, but also plays bass and keyboards. Kravac is also back, pulling double-duty as co-producer and drummer.

The result? Reckoning is twenty-five minutes of intimate, authentic surf rock bliss whose DIY methodology and deliriously accessible tunes celebrate how far Surftone has come—and hint at where she may go next.

Roll out your convertible and drop the top (metaphorically speaking) for incendiary opener “Mojo Junction,” whose oceanic, ebb-and-flow rock rhythm bolsters Susan’s bright lead guitar. Unlike Dale and other string-pickers, Yasinski prefers jangly chords and distinct (but shimmery) phrasing. She swaps velocity for feel, communicating instead of hyperventilating, and it pays off: Each note has a distinct presence and peel. Together, they provide the listener breathing room rather than taking one’s breath away, and one can imagine the wind whipping through his (or her) hair, as if tearing down the Pacific Highway at sunset at 75mph. There’s a nimble bass fill on the turnaround, and Kravacs’ wave-like snare is augmented sizzling high-hat and—midway through—by hand-claps. One can’t listen and not think of Coppertone, coconuts, and conch shells.

Rumbling bass escorts Surftone’s Byrds-like guitar to a double-timed segue on “Circles” as keyboards whirl in background. Likewise, the upbeat “Secrets” employs a steady, tick-tick beat and sibilant high hat when underpinning Susan’s twangy, saccharine guitar lead. There’s even a rattlesnake-like vibra-slap punctuating her ascending, crystalline four-note passages during what could be considered the refrain. Slip into your flip-flops and fire up the Tiki torches.

Something of a sister song to “Mojo Junction,” the up-tempo “Vortex ‘59” dresses an old-school garage rock progression with a wistful, swerving lead. Keyboards fill the background space, audible but unobtrusive when Surftone depresses her whammy bar to blur chords into watery undulations of sound.

The Link Wray (“Rumble”)-like title track is perhaps the slowest tune Surftone’s done in years, but deceleration doesn’t necessarily connote emotional de-escalation. There’s an element of menace here, with Yasinki’s warbling, kaleidoscopic arpeggios echoing, dreamlike—beneath a loping toms. It’s fizzy and effervescent, yet a little spooky, as if there’s some confrontation at hand.

Listen to samples of “Secrets” and “Mojo Junction” here:

The EP’s conclusion brings Susan full-circle: The disc wraps with a spin on 1955 Elvis Presley hit “Mystery Train” (itself a cover of the song recorded by Junior Parker two years prior for Sam Phillips’ Sun Records), and B-Side to Presley single, “I Forgot to Remember to Forget”). Conjuring guitarist Scotty Moore by tickling the King’s vocal melody on her treble strings, Surftone maximizes on scant five or six notes during the verse, then her hand slides—glissando—into the transition as a rhythm guitar calls out the chord changes. A locomotive pulse is further achieved not by increasing the tempo or placing emphasis on the drums, but by going in the opposite direction, limiting percussion to a pair of sticks. The sharp, cicada-like clickety-clack evokes the image of a phantom engine barreling down the rails.

What’s really nice about Reckoning is that it’s neither too much nor too little of a good thing. Surftone casts her spell quickly and lets it linger, like salt on the lips after a morning spent on the Gulf burying one’s toes in the sand. If you’re looking for the perfect summer soundtrack for lounging poolside beneath the palms, Reckoning's the aural equivalent of your favorite umbrella drink.

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