Graded on a Curve:
Beach Fossils,
The Other Side of Life: Piano Ballads

Led by vocalist-guitarist Dustin Payseur, New York City’s Beach Fossils, extant since 2009, have established their name in the indie rock field, which makes new record The Other Side of Life: Piano Ballads a definite twist in the program. The title should provide the clue-in to a decidedly jazzy state of affairs, as Payseur gives eight Beach Fossils tunes (a “greatest hits”) an infusion of classicism with the help of old bandmate Tommy Gardner on piano, saxophone, and upright bass and Henry Kwapis on drums. It’s a gamble that could’ve proved disastrous but through solid judgment and sturdy execution is a wholly enjoyable undertaking, out November 19 on LP, CD, cassette, and digital via Bayonet Records.

The influence of jazz on rock musicians is no new thing of course, but the impact is predominantly tied to later groundbreaking chapters in the constantly evolving style, namely Modal, Fusion, and Avant-garde inclinations. Outside of Steely Dan and a few of that’s band’s cohorts from the sophisto ’70s, rarely has jazz balladry, an impulse often associated with standards, been the source of rock inspiration, particularly after the punk era.

In the promotional text for this album, Payseur cites his love for Lester Young, Chet Baker, Bill Evans, and Coleman Hawkins. These are easy names to drop, but as The Other Side of Life plays, it becomes pretty clear that Payseur has spent enough time listening to classic mid-20th century jazz to avoid cheapening what he steals (to borrow a phrase from the late Andrew Sarris).

Naturally, there are exceptions to the above stated lack of ballad-loving rockers, but rather than list a few and then partake in a compare and contrast thing, it seems more productive to instead delve into what makes Payseur’s record stand out and stand up as worthwhile. For starters, his ace in the hole is Gardner, a Julliard grad (and Beach Fossils’ prior drummer) who is more than merely competent on his three instruments here and who additionally collaborated on the arrangements with Payseur.

That Gardner plays piano, sax, and bass is the bold tip-off that The Other Side of Life wasn’t recorded live in the studio. There are a few spots where this is clear, but I was still surprised to read that all the album’s parts were recorded remotely. After consideration, pleasantly surprised. To a purist mindset, overdubbing and certainly remote recording are antithetical to jazz, but it becomes obvious rather quickly upon spinning this record (and it’s a short LP, conducive to many successive plays) that authenticity isn’t the goal, nor is stale homage.

Instrumentally, The Other Side of Life does sink eight balls confidently (and pretty gracefully) into the jazz ballad pocket. Kwapis is handy with the brushes, while Gardner’s bass is large but limber, his sax smoldering romantically without succumbing to drowsiness, and most importantly, his piano skills, flowing but never too flowery, are integral to the record’s success, alongside Payseur’s voice. So, unless you’re an utter stickler for sounds that rise to the level of Young, Baker, Evans, and Hawkins, the playing here should inspire appreciation.

Moving on to Payseur’s vocal approach, he steadfastly avoids falling (faltering) into a jazzy mode, having identified his limitations while harboring a general disinterest in crafting a hollow impersonation. Instead, the singing lands securely in the zone of melancholy reflectiveness, so that the contents, per Payseur’s stated aim, still connect like a Beach Fossils record (just one that hardly anybody was expecting).

The airiness of Payseur’s vocals, particularly in the opening track “This Year” and its follow-up “May 1st,” really enhances a “sitting on a park bench in a raincoat during a light drizzle” downtrodden aura, which is its own sort of pop classicism, reminiscent of a singer-songwriter and producer going all in on a jazzy concept and rounding up George Cables, Phil Woods, Cameron Brown, and Billy Hart for the sessions.

After the initial surprise wears off, the album lacks in any startling twists, though “Down the Line” did remind me a bit of Alex Chilton circa Big Star’s Third. More noteworthy is how The Other Side of Life: Piano Ballads avoids nose-diving in quality. It’s an altogether impressive achievement for Dustin Payseur and Beach Fossils.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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