Orange County rock band The Growlers refuses to fall into a single genre. At the core of their craft, they are a garage rock band from California. But across their entire discography, influences ranging from psychedelic, heavy surf rock, punk, and even, at times, hints of reggae and disco are evident.
Describing themselves “beach goth,” The Growlers have been able to seamlessly pull from different genres over their four albums, but on their fifth full-length album, Chinese Fountain, the California garage rockers manage to bring their influences together to still keep the sound diverse but more polished than before.
Chinese Fountain opens up with groove-heavy track “Big Toe,” with a catchy guitar riff and steady percussion beat carrying lead singer Brooks Nielsen’s vocals over distinctly downtrodden lyrics about a lost love, crooning “She’s got me on the bridge/looking down at the old cold river.” Following it is “Black Memories,” where Nielsen sings of unfading scars and asks his love to “come back with his heart.” With two lyrically heavy-laden songs starting off the album, it would appear this would be 11 tracks of a lost love and shattered heart.
Midway through however, some hints of optimism appear. On the sunny track “Going Gets Tough,” Nielsen sings “Still always remembering when the going gets tough/That the labor of our love will reward us soon enough.” Such overt optimism isn’t as inevitable in the following track, “Magnificent Sadness,” where the message of hope being on the horizon is masked by a heavier, darker instrumentation.
Chinese Fountain rounds out it’s last four tracks in a similar pattern to the rest of the album: an alternating mix of breezy surf music such as the cautionary “Love Test” and spacey, echo-laden songs like album closer “Purgatory Drive.” There can, however, be a disconnect at times. Title track “Chinese Fountain” seems to be the most dissimilar to others in terms of influence, starting with a steady keyboard pattern and subtle disco-feel.
Still, the fluidity of the album is strong and the overall tone is similar to previous releases. Instruments swing and topple over each other, and Nielsen voice floats seamlessly with the reverb soaked melodies that The Growlers have become so well known for.
After four albums, a handful of EPs and demos, a studio fire, and a previously failed production attempt by The Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach, the band seems to have pulled together the dozens of influences they draw from into a cohesive album better than they ever have before. While some of the tracks on Chinese Fountain can at times sound a bit similar after one listen, clear genre-bending instrumentation and clever lyrics help differentiate from song to song. As for Nielsen, the listener gets the sense this album was almost like reading from pages of a journal; the lyrics are honest and raw, clearly speaking of a breakthrough and hope he’s looking to have post a broken heart.
Despite a penchant for frequently putting out music, The Growlers still keep themselves low profile. Despite theatrics and wigs at live shows, the yearly Beach Goth Festival that they host, and selling out venues across the country, they still maintain a low key and underground element to their craft. But if the strength of their song-writing and skill as artists they showed on album number five, tagged with an industry looking to throw the next underground, anti-mainstream band into the spotlight and festival scene, life post-Chinese Fountain may see a breakthrough for The Growlers in more ways than one.