With a generation that first grew up on video games, it’s no surprise that chiptune has leaked into popular music today. You don’t find it often in emo/pop punk, which is what immediately made Palmdale band Playing Tourist Forever stick out to me. The yearnings of their second album, Strawberry, come to us from Doug (who is apparently the result of The Strokes and The Shins having a singing guitarist baby. Oh yeah, and he program the fuck out of a synth too), Giancarlo (who supplies probably the most compelling bass of any emo outfit I’ve ever come across. Also, thank him for letting the guys record at his place), and Kevin (who does a great job balancing the rather impressive drums on this thing to punctuate the emotion that permeates this band). Before we get into this, you can grab Strawberry at a name your own price availability on Bandcamp right now. (https://playingtouristforever.bandcamp.com/album/strawberry) Fair warning: almost every song on here is incredibly catchy.
This thing has seven tracks on it, so I figure I’ll go through it track-by-track.
A Thought Loop Acquisition System: We start off this handful of songs (their words not mine) with “A Thought Loop Acquisition System”. This nearly-three-minute opener does a great job of setting the tone of the albums. The highly emotive synth evokes a sense of fond nostalgia, but in parts it contrasts with the reverb-laden guitar to form a saddened, wistful overlay. As we progress through the track the synth begins to float around in some pretty creative, almost plucky territory that mimics the guitar in a subtle sense. The drum and bass combination stands out particularly here: they create a hardened, driving batter that doesn’t appear often under the helm of chiptune-inspired melodies.
Ghost Friend: The body high that was the opening track goes straight to the head with “Ghost Friend”. Every time I put this on I imagine Tim Burton-esque skeletons speeding through the suburbs in an old convertible. Suffice to say this is quite a driving, intoxicating track. The bass and synth hold hands in “Ghost Friend” running gleefully as the drums clap along this tale about a troublemaking pal. That being said, my first few listens to it I interpreted it as an allegory for a promiscuous significant other with lyrics like “Won’t stop fucking around/With everyone in town”, and “Ghost Friend” being phonetically similar to girlfriend, but I may be reading too much into that. I do take issue with the repetitiveness of the lyrics and, vocally, the chorus is outright annoying.
Season: I can easily picture this guitar-headed song in a coming-of-age movie or a teenage drama. I compare it to a teenage drama because, well, the lyrics are quite adolescent. “And my friends think I’m a fool/For chasing after you/They don’t understand my point of view” is pretty straight forward pining after a love interest, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. I think it plays nicely off of the appropriately spacious, moody guitar riffs that do pack a bit of an edge and the drums being brought to the forefront does wonders for the sentiment of this song.
Nineteen Twenty Something: While I do like this song quite a lot, thematically it contrasts questionably against it’s tracklist predecessor. “Nineteen Twenty Something” is an anxiety-ridden spastic burst (“We should go out separate ways” and “Can’t you tell that I’m afraid/I Don’t want to fall in love”). For me it comes too fast after “Season”, where we jump right from “I wish I was with this girl” to “Fuck, I’m with her and I’m falling in love too fast let’s break things off”. It feels like there’s a bridge that’s missing between the two.
That being said, I do appreciate the come-down-from-the sugar-rush-break down that closes out the song, and the straight jump to energy that starts the song is a nice wake-up.
Sorry About the Soda: This is an absolute treasure of a song. The bass and synth balance off of each other so perfectly, as the guitar and drums coexist through well-executed tempo changes. The lyrics are simple but our boy Doug delivers them like a sonnet in one of the more inspiring songs I’ve heard thus far in 2017. “Sorry About the Soda” essentially is the band pulling off their sound to maximum effectiveness. It’s very a developed, confident piece that I hope they channel in their future releases.
The Drive Home from Palos Verdes: Another strong example of Playing Tourist Forever’s songwriting abilities, the penultimate track plays off of a sentiment I found similar to that of Slime Girls in their Vacation Wasteland EP. It evokes an anxious sadness that permeates through the latter half of this album, punctuated by the heaviest synths on the thing. Lyrically it reminds me of “The Chauffeur” by Duran Duran. It’s escalation is an existentialist fever dream that ends up screaming its insecurities at you. In an endearing way.
Later, Nerd: Title-wise, this is my favorite on Strawberry. What hits me initially is that the volume is inconsistent with the rest of the album. It’s noticeably quieter which indicates that it was either recorded first when the band was beginning to figure out their recording style or just separately from the rest. Otherwise, what feels influenced by a 90’s alternative rock callback ends up being a great finish to the album. Then, there’s the instrumental that sneaks up afterwards. It’s much quieter than the first song on this track (this time obviously intentional), but given the mixing error on that plagued this one from the start it makes the closing jam almost inaudible without cranking up your volume and thus pulling you out of the trance that is this album, which is a shame because it’s fantastic.
Overall, I enjoyed this album quite a bit. In the dozens of listens I gave it in preparation for this review all of the strong points of the album held up very nicely. I regularly had their riffs stuck in my head long after having given the album listen-through. It’s a very danceable and broody record (an unusual combination, but it works) but poignantly heartfelt. The genuineness of the fruit of Playing Tourist Forever’s labor gives it a lot of life.
The lyrics could use some work, though. There are solid ideas but most of them live in emo cliches in a record that has bright sparks of instrumental inventiveness. I wish the words lived up to that more. A great deal of the songs on Strawberry followed a similar structure (namely “Ghost Friend” and “Nineteen Twenty Something”), which given what you’d expect from the emo/pop punk genre doesn’t feel like a huge letdown, but it didn’t impress me either. Those songs definitely left something to be desired and ultimately made them skippable.
I like Playing Tourist Forever’s synth-infused sound and they clearly are capable of capturing its beauty, but I think they’d benefit from experimentation in song structure. I would call Strawberry a great foundation, and hopefully they’ll capitalize on some of the brilliant ideas they etched out here.
Without a doubt I’m going to be looking forward to their next release.