The Tijuana Panthers got their name from the little black ceramic panther that was a present from their neighbor Max Baker—yes, the Max Baker who they named their first album after, and who deserves a bio all his own—and they got their sound from that strange place where punk bands crash into pop music and come out the other side, bristling with hooks and hitting three-part harmonies almost by happy accident.
Even the Beach Boys were once a garage band, and after them came the waves of kids playing rock 'n' roll somewhere between the surf and the surface streets. Then when punk showed up in the '70s, it was just an adjustment in hairstyle and speed. The Buzzcocks did this a whole hemisphere away, the Real Kids and the Modern Lovers did it on the other side of the country, and the Crowd and the Simpletones did it just a few towns over. And now Tijuana Panthers come striding proudly out of their hometown of Long Beach, California.
With their long-awaited third album Everyone Else, Slothrust deliver ten riveting anthems that reward repeated listens. The songs grab the ear and pierce the psyche with complex arrangements and lyrical depth intensified by guitarist/vocalist Leah Wellbaum’s penetrating vocal delivery.
Slothrust is Wellbaum, Kyle Bann (bass), and Will Gorin (drums). The trio first staked out their unique strain of jazz- and blues-afflicted rock as students at Sarah Lawrence College. The band’s 2012 debut Feels Your Pain, and its successor 2014’s Of Course You Do, established the band as a breed apart, serving up deceptively clever epics that veer satisfyingly between incandescent riffing and pop hooks, winsome anxiety and powerful heft.
“People have always had trouble comparing us to other bands, but someone recently described us as Nirvana meets Wynton Marsalis, and I loved that,” says Wellbaum. Even the band’s name inspires a beat of thoughtful consideration as the eyes take in the letters and the brain makes its snap judgement: Slo Thrust? Slot Rust? Slo Trust? Sloth-Rust.
We all studied jazz and blues, so I often use chords and voicings that aren’t quite as conventional for contemporary rock,” she continues. “Certain harmonic movement can get stale, so I try to incorporate colorful notes to give it more depth. The improvisational spirit of blues music is also something we try to always keep with us, even in more composed playing. I am drawn to musicians a bit further outside of the rock tradition, such as John Fahey, Elizabeth Cotten, D'Angelo, and Portishead. Growing up I listened to a lot of R&B and classical music. And musicals."
While Everyone Else clearly shows Wellbaum fulfilling her early promise as a singer, it’s where she hits her stride as a lyricist: Pulling the listener under the surface to explore a submerged world brimming with exotic creatures. Water motifs abound, detailing oddly off-kilter observations about floating, submerging and drowning that are anything but morose. Instead, they contort and reflect worldly truths about life on dry land.
Nowhere is this vision clearer than on the slow burn of the album’s centerpiece track “Horseshoe Crab.” Here, with storm cloud riffs and Will Gorin and Kyle Bann’s perfectly calibrated rhythmic undercurrent, Slothrust’s erupts in a geyser of emotional and spatial distance, as Wellbaum observes, “I don’t have anything in common with myself, except that I came from the sea, like everyone else did.”
“Like a Child Hiding Behind Your Tombstone" opens like some bizzarro world lullaby dispensing sage advice: “Drink seltzer, smoke weed when you can’t sleep. Think about shooting birds, everyone has got a violent streak.” Then, as the guitars explode, the rhythm section dials into stylish, disciplined groove to set up an expansive instrumental break that gently floats to a close with Wellbaum, at peace: “Hold me under the water. My lungs are filling with plankton. But the lake is not lonely. No need for you to come with me.”
Above all the overriding ethos of Everyone Else is its sense of inclusiveness: all people, every feeling, quiet, loud, any time signature. With a snap of the neck the band launches into the hyper-adrenalized “Rotten Pumpkin” with Wellbaum singing in a rapid-fire vomit burst, “I’ll make you sick because I’m soft water. Reach inside of me, and scoop out my seeds.” This midpoint between grunge and art rock is the aesthetic Slothrust elevates: sharp-eyed individualism, serious musicianship, humble intelligence, controlled abandon.