by Alex Colston (@re_colston)
What’s the message? Where from? Where to?
These were the curiosities when Surface to Air Missive’s (STAM) S/T record quietly appeared among the better back alleys of Tallahassee, Florida’s muggy, listlessly virtuosic scene in 2013. To be sure, Taylor Ross’ claim to musical mastery would be difficult to undercut as STAM’s first record was written and performed entirely by Ross, despite breaking bones he still managed to pull off the recording —drums admirably beaten through the pain. So, maybe, it’s safe to say that at 23, when his first record came out, Ross was both a wunderkind and a workhorse to boot.
Across his first record Ross shreds in the most classic dad-rock way, trolling about the swamp of his fretboard. It only makes sense as a Tallahassee native, that Ross’ musicianship at once displays both the features of a quintessential Florida band—easygoing fluidity and stylistic iconoclasm—and all the riffing and showmanship of older Southern rock n’ roll. Of course, it’s not the 70’s, you know, so Ross’ musical feel is more in tune with the tempered anomie of young, lefty southerners and their struggles amid cultural wasteland—ironizing more than emulating the coked-up, cock-rock fanfare of older southern Rock n’ Rollers. The fourth track on STAM’s first record, “The Heat” puts you through the paces of Ross’ instrumental, song-writing, and vocalizing ability within 20 seconds of its opening. It at once displays driving, unyielding, and even eager energy; it is the playful musical hopscotching of “The Heat” that best showcases STAM, and indeed Ross’ ability.
Traditions and habits die hard in the South; even if they are good habits and even if they habituate the art-ier, punk-ier inhabitants. On Ross’ third record, A V, released by Leaving Records on November 4th, there is still present the virtuosity of his S/T and the bluesy craft of Southern rock song-writing (e.g. CCR, Tom Petty) characteristic of his sophomore record. However, A V finds something more patient, but nonetheless maniacally well calculated, working itself out. Ross has since moved away from Tallahassee to Athens, GA, having also toured with Athens’ indie rock lodestar Kevin Barnes and his band Of Montreal. While the newer, more psychedelic strains in “Time Being” point to a borrowed influence from Barnes, it would be a disservice to Ross to draw a strict one-to-one out of this resemblance—A V is at once, for Ross’s musical trajectory, a discovery of more musical elements, a reapplication of older ones, and a development of the experimental freedom available to the solo, polyglot musician.
This third record renders Surface to Air Missive’s message clear: Ross is committed to not just vertical but horizontal growth as a musician, and it’d be a good bet to expect further output whose arc will be anything but linear. At least it’s worth hoping for such longevity; Ross has a doubtless sense of humor and funny people are worth keeping around. The opening track is a wonderful joke that betokens the unfolding of the rest of the record. “My Stratocaster” is 1:18 of compressed-to-hell drums and handclaps that loop and vary a single beat ending as abruptly as it beings. Clearly, Ross’ musical upbringing leaned heavy on the mechanics of the guitar. Here much more so than his previous albums, Ross leaves behind the guitar as the main vehicle for his songwriting.
And, on this record, Ross’ versatility is unmistakable. A V is more spacious and generously endowed as a soundscape, utilizing more electronic registers and technological polishing. More than previous records there’s an attention to sonic layering, looping, and sampling heretofore absent. For instance, the albums’ second track, “I Call Me Us” could very well be a Julian Lynch track in the stretch of its plodding meander. “Full Love Wonder” and the album’s principal track “Time Being” have the multi-instrumental panache of Shugo Tokumaru and Andrew Bird. The instrumental piece “Return of Swan” returns to Ross’ guitar-based work with an incredibly beautiful opening, equal parts jazz and classical, and it quickly blossoms into an array of musical styles, with appropriate accompaniment, pointing to a newly found worldliness in Ross’ music.
Surface to Air Missive has always had a chilled quality about it, no matter how sophisticated or lick loving the music is. There’s something distinctively buoyant about Ross’ style and it becomes the determining factor in his (much-maligned) “beach-rock.” It can’t merely be laid back, which is easy enough, and common to more fresh-water regional geographies too, for that matter. It has to be briny, gritty, and elevating like the salt water, filling the oceanic Atlantic and encircling Gulf on all the watery sides of Florida. In a possibly indirect ode to its Southern, therefore religious and spiritual, surroundings Ross' lyrical content is often supplicate, meditative, repetitive, even prayerful: “Full love wonder, a time to feel” is refrained and intoned almost as a spiritual axiom. As the record’s title would indicate “Time Being” is exactly preoccupied with its eponymous themes, but Ross’ contribution to these themes are not lyrical so much as embodied by the music itself. Ross is a master of time dilation in the musical production of his songs, he slows and quickens, pivots and turns, rises and falls in an entirely purposeful yet unpredictable manner. Much like Being and Time, there is a logic in their unfolding all but outside of predictive modeling.
Surface to Air Missive, if Ross’ records thus far are any indication, will continue this long-term negotiation of music, aesthetic, and musical technicality to an unforeseeable end. Nonetheless, from the ground of Ross’ musical skill to the stretched skies of his musical imagination, Ross has launched three seemingly effortless LPs. Hopefully we can look forward to more of them, as so many lifted lanterns across a single life’s evening.