The newest Beach Fossils’ album is an oddity. For starters, it’s not really new at all; these are alternate versions of some of the band’s most loved songs, reimagined here as jazzy piano ballads for a post-show cocktail lounge. The idea: rearrange the simplistic melodies of Beach Fossils into the classic, similarly understated cool of Chet Baker. The Other Side of Life: Piano Ballads finds a formula and sticks to it. It avoids any bold leaps beyond a changed instrumentation. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it works.
Here, Beach Fossils bear much more resemblance to the Vince Guaraldi Trio than The Smiths. The jangling guitars have gone. The bright, bouncing bass has dropped low and warm. The tight drumming has spread out into the crisp rattling of brushes on snare. Otherwise, the songs are largely the same. This conversion may be familiar to the modern listener thanks to Richard Cheese, the tongue-in-cheek singer who reimagines mostly rap and hard rock as unoffensive lounge numbers. (The gag, obviously, being that the songs are neutered to the point of offense.) I can thankfully report that Beach Fossils avoid this comparison.
The set excels by emphasizing Beach Fossils’ minimalism. The band is best known for its interplay of minimalistic, repeating guitar lines. Here, the piano takes over the bulk of that. Intermittently, a tenor saxophone takes a brief lead, typically in place of a guitar break that, in the original songs, would have transitioned from a chorus to a verse or served as a bridge. While frontman Dustin Payseur describes making a jazz album as a long-held goal, it’s his former bandmate Thomas Gardner, a Juilliard-trained musician, that fuels this transformation. Gardner provides piano, upright bass, and saxophone; the drumming come from Henry Kwapis.
While the song structures have been adapted to fit the new arrangements, they stay largely true to the impression of the originals. Payseur too makes little change for this setting. He lets the tempos slow down and softens his delivery as if he’s singing over, say, a jazz piano ballad, rather than a buzzy indie rock track, but it’s enough. Maybe he lets the words ooze out a little more, the vowels become a bit slurred and the consonants stretched, all of it fading in an ellipsis rather than concluding on a period. For the most part, he doesn’t have to do anything. This is someone else’s show and he just happens to be the esteemed, honorary guest.
The Other Side does remarkably well at capturing the tired, hazy cool already associated with Beach Fossils. “This Year” in particular is near all one could hope for based off the description provided. Jazzy chord voicings replace the charming chime of guitars. When some – though certainly not all – listeners might be longing for something more, a nonchalant saxophone wades in.
The greatest regret with the jazzed-up versions is the timidity. For apparent fear of deviating too far from the original songs, Gardner’s saxophone is kept to a tight schedule and the piano and bass rarely adventure beyond the status quo introduced at the top of each track.
The saxophone solo on “May 1st” illustrates this, sounding like a false attempt at going through the motions, structurally speaking, that is. As in, ‘Here’s where we’d usually put the guitar lead, time for a solo, I guess.’ But, in jazz, that’s not where you would put a solo. Jazz – more than just a music with 7th chords, ride cymbals and horns – is a style based off of improvisation. A jazz session doesn’t refer to the hours needed to finish a recording but to that one special instance where these players came together in this location to play these compositions in this context. And sessions can thus take on legendary importance for capturing that feel or that solo. That is not what The Other Side does.
The limitations that became the opportunity for the album in the first place – a pandemic that led Beach Fossils to a break in work on new material – become limitations again. Allowing the songs to adventure into new territory, rather than turning them into tokens of a genre, could have made The Other Side a project with more independent artistic merit. “Sleep Apnea,” which opens with an initially lackluster piano line, hints at this. Initially the absence of the broad left-hand chords and twinkling, right-hand flourishes show the inhibiting restraint of the piano. Then, when the band kicks in, “Sleep Apnea” has the most novel style of the album, the percussion swaying in a metallic sheen over that warmth of upright bass.
Mostly, there’s a yearning for things to expand freely, especially for the saxophone breaks to become solos rather than melodies. It would be difficult to imagine a Beach Fossils album going much longer though. With eight songs in 26 minutes, each track already stretches past the three-minute marker, plenty long by the band’s standards. That does keep the novelty of the cocktail jazz arrangements from wearing off. It’s likely a smart choice.
On “What a Pleasure,” perhaps the album’s finest track, the saxophone is given just a touch more time to play during its mid-song interjection. It’s the piano solo at the end, though, that finally stretches out. While still lamentably short, it takes admirable liberties, advancing the harmony in conjunction with the bass. It’s those moments on The Other Side that show how more could have been done while simultaneously leaving us wanting more. Perhaps another listen?