Tijuana Panthers | Semi-Sweet
by Lee Adcock
Let’s s face it – what do we know about rock and roll, anyway? We live in the age of music engineers, vinyl librarians, and ludicrous genre fusions. Rock has been tweaked, redefined, and overwrought so much in this past 60 years…and, mind, diversity is a beautiful thing, but at some point we must ask: what IS the essence of rock as we know it?
I dare say I’d be the best expert on the subject, but this I know: rock and roll is youth, and all the impatience, passion, and wide-eyed exuberance that generally follows. Falling in love, cruising through town with buddies in tow, dancing the night away. And, by definition, rock and roll is the tried-and-true trade of Tijuana Panthers, a a three-piece band from LA. These dudes wrangle the brazen spirit of early punk and drive it back to rock’s heyday, when beach party movies were still hip and Dick Dale commandeered the fret boards. When ‘Above Your Means’ blasts out of the gate, Tijuana Panthers hurl you back, way back, and pummel you with such lo-fi, Adverts-esque force and psyched-out verve that only the dullest of blokes would not be pounded into submission.
Because, you see, that’s the beautiful thing about these guys – they’ve revived the ancient art of rocking with wild abandon, while crafting idyllic pop at the same time. ‘Wall Walker’ borrows the infamous liquid bass that Novoselic ripped from Killing Joke’s ‘Eighties’, but careens forth with garage rock bravado and features the lightning fast drums and guitar cascades so familiar with surf. And yet, it all totals up to just pure rebellious delight.
The multi-faceted influences to Wall Walker characterize the entire album. For instance, start with ‘Boardwalk’. Oh, Boardwark. Every time I spin it, those snappy riffs and “yup yups” from the band fill me with glee. It’s by far the cheeriest track I’ve heard all year – and it must be the band’s favorite, too, because they feature it twice on the album. If the Undertones visited California, they’d write a song like this; Feargal Sharkey could not have brought more cheeky charm. Yet we veer sharply to ‘Father Figure’, which combines the endearing humility of Edwyn Collins (circa Orange Juice, of course) with rock n’ roll fervor. Elsewhere, Baker assumes a nasally pitch in a jangly tune, ‘Push Over’, that could easily have been borrowed from Frankie Vallie.
Ah, but Tijuana Panthers do reserve the best stuff for the very end. ‘Juvy Jeans’, a sassy number with proto-punk flair (Baker even name-drops Iggy Pop) is the one silly reprieve in the final stretch; ‘Forbidden Fruit’ and ‘Baby I’m Bored’, on the other hand, are staggering. The former – which, by the way, is the longest track on the album, at 3’22!” – tells a strained tale of love from a distance over a booming beat and golden surfy pickin’. Ohhh, and then we have the latter. Urgent, threatening chord progressions. Wistful lyrics over a standoff-ish chorus. And that ever so familiar cry, . Yet, with a startling 180, the band throws all that angst away for a sweet, ragged little number called ‘Sunday’. It’s a mess – the drums are shuffling away in another room, a harmonica wheezes in and out, and the acoustic picking here could be out of tune – but I wouldn’t have it any other way.
A hardened cynic could pick apart Semi-Sweet if they wanted to, but I wouldn’t dare. I love both versions of Boardwalk, the unrestrained energy, the unabashed pilfering of rock and pop mantras, the amateur spirit of Sunday. Why? Because, in this LP, I don’t hear Tijuana Panthers as reverent vinyl collectors, rock historians, or music innovators. I hear three dudes that can honestly rock and roll. According to the press release, they finished recording when the album not only sounded right, but felt right. Kudos, Tijuana Panthers – I totally agree.