8.0 BEST NEW RECORD
Regular Bear Records / 2015
Astute listeners would be forgiven for double-taking on their first listen to Team Callahan: "Wait, where are these guys from? I thought it said Denver..." With a little digging, they'd learn that Nick and Kathleen Arnal are recent transplants from St. Petersburg, Florida, which explains what in the world these Coloradoans are doing making this sun-soaked sand dune surf pop. The husband-and-wife duo completed Afterglow before they made the move, and it's a chronicle of their first year of marriage and all its attendant joy, pain, and responsibility.
Musically, the record is cut from the same beach towel as Best Coast and Girls, with wild shoots of twanging riffs and tambourine rattles springing from a '60s pop foundation. "Point Doom" opens the record at full sprint, with a cyclone of surf guitar and an incandescent performance by Kathleen Arnal, whose affect recalls Cherie Currie's girlish swagger. She handles lead vocals on every Team Callahan song, and her dexterity and winning persona are what make their capable sound exceptional. She's a natural frontwoman with charisma to burn, and her huge tangle of blonde hair lends her something like Victoria Legrand's shaggy mystique.
That relation to Beach House isn't isolated - Afterglow has several tracks that seem to be channel their hazy, opulent dream pop. The most striking of these is the magic-hour melancholy of "Mammoth Cave" where, shut out of the boys' club, Kathleen wrings every atom of emotion from the lines, "I wanted to marry my best friends, but they didn't want to marry me/So I get my love from Jesus while I'm sippin' on green tea". Subsisting on divine love instead of frail human affection is a major theme on the record. Illusions of marital bliss on "Milk Glass" "turn to ash, fast/Thank God for eternity", and the same song fingers our age's spiritual starvation, skewering the soft nihilism that's in vogue: "He said that everything is nothing/That sentence doesn't have a start".
The Arnals' new marriage forms the backdrop for Afterglow, but these aren't myopic love songs. Instead, the insights are mostly practical and mundane - a grimy first apartment, sorting out insurance, and feeling like old people staying in while your single friends are out living it up. "You're a weekend hot shot/and I'm a weekend fool", goes the chorus on the riotous, shambolic gem "Weekend Hot Shot". It affectionately lionizes a friend as the hedonist king of the party circuit, but the bombastic handclaps and oo-oo-oohs are stopped short by the reminder, "We will get older, our good times much slower, and some day we will die."
That sentiment about the fickleness of "the good life" forms Afterglow's thematic backbone - like the firework on the album cover, youth burns brief and bright before snuffing out forever. Luckily, it's just a spark from a greater Light. The Exodus imagery on "Lions" pinpoints God's eternal inferno as the source of true happiness that's always worthy of pursuit ("Seek the fire in the desert/The big-hearted pillar in the sky"), and on "Fable", where Kathleen's words linger reluctantly behind Nick's softly pulsing guitar, she contends, "This world's a shadow of the next."
That new world to come, along with the redemption of the present one, is the focus of the eight-minute title track that closes the record. Like the album as a whole, "Afterglow" would be served by some judicious editing (with a runtime pushing an hour, a couple of the LP's songs don't justify themselves), but the cascade of harmonies in its crescendo are tough to get out of your head. Not only that, but the song's beatific picture of the Second Coming, with the "jealous rose risen on high", points to a near future where joy isn't always followed by grief, and heaven and earth are lit in permanent afterglow.