Sunday, May 21, 2017

One Last Pick Through the Bins, Volume 26: Japandroids, Rock's Sneaky Party Band

Yep, those two hooked up...
For once, I don’t need to lard this volume back-story/personal history (and I’m working on minimizing that part, too; it’s about the music, kid). I picked up Vancouver B.C.’s Japandroids album Celebration Rock because I caught their name in The Portland Mercury, thought it was neat and/or clever, etc. I listened to that album a few times and liked it well enough, but nothing about it really lit my fire, so I tucked it away and forgot about it until something made me go back to it. This project, actually. (And, in case you’re wondering, yeah, this about half the motivation – i.e., spelunking around my own music collection for lightly-neglected, sometimes forgotten, nooks and crannies.)

Only one song stuck from those first several listens: “Adrenaline Nightshift.” By that I mean, unlike the rest, I immediately recognized it when I listened to Celebration Rock over the past week. Even so, it’s hard to imagine “Adrenaline Nightshift” as some guy’s all-time favorite song, or as the doorway to some complicated girl’s soul. It’s a rock song, and a decent one, but there’s nothing special to the sound or deep or poignant in the lyrics. It rocks and…that’s it, it just rocks.

After reading about the band – fidelity to a DIY ethic, their struggles to get signed and related near break-ups, touring like goddamn maniacs, a “health emergency”* - it’s almost impossible not to pull for them (*and, yes, that last one makes really makes me feel like an asshole). For all that, I can’t bring myself to sell them as a band anyone needs to hear; they’re nothing revelatory musically; Japandroids sound like their influences (more later), but with enough twist that anyone who knows them can pick out a song as theirs – probably by the vocals (not their long suit, really). And maybe that has to do with their long struggle to make a paying gig out of music (but, again, how many bands I like except the biggest ones do that for long?).

Something about Japandroids - and this only comes through their music, not deep research - makes me think they’d take all the above in stride. Having listened to nearly everything they’ve put out (just four full albums, plus some random shit I just found; song I've heard from them...damn), they come across as guys doing this shit fer kicks. Their lyrics, at least so far as I’ve teased them out, revel in everything about youth – the bingo-ball-bin way people come together, living in the moment like nothing else matters, and, when it’s all over, remembering those times with (giddy, drunken) reverence (see, “Younger Us”). Japandroids don’t only talk about “drinking and smoking” (see, “The Nights of Wine and Roses”), but those come up as subjects a lot, even if not so blatantly. Broadly, Japandroids approach to music leans heavily into wall-of-sound guitar – some shimmer, mostly drone – lots of anthem/chorus hooks and all of it more or less up-tempo. Their Wikipedia page (link above; see “reading about the band”) lists their influences as “one part classic rock, and one part punk.” Mmm, I’m less sold on that. As much as anything, they sound like alt-rock from around the time the 80s bent into the 90s. Or they did at least.

The band didn’t quite break out with Celebration Rock – their most popular songs on Spotify come off their most recent album, Near to the Wild Heart of Life (more later) – but that album took a couple clear steps away from what they did on their two earlier albums Post-Nothing and No Singles, which, from what I gather, re-released EPs and songs they put out on super-small platforms during their (truer) DIY-struggle days. The tendencies and approaches from Celebration Rock clearly carry through to Near to the Wild Heart of Life, but the latter, full of more hooks and polished to a brighter shine, feels more likely to lead to a breakthrough. Some of those songs – see, “North East South West” – sound like straight-up bids for radio air-time. I’m not judging that, not remotely. If these guys can find success, I’m all for it. (And for the fifth or sixth time, I just do not understand what gets played on the radio and why…hold that thought).

To get back to influences – the “classic rock meets punk rock” thing – eh…maybe. I hear classic rock influences here and there, and strong ones – see what sounds like a few bars of Rush at the start of “No Allegiance to the Queen,” and something I could totally hear Black Sabbath playing in “Crazy/Forever” (give it a sec, and good song, btw) – but the 80s/90s inspirations, especially Husker Du, come in more clearly for me. Even in their later stuff, a song like “I’m Sorry (For Not Finding You Sooner)” at least recalls Bailter Space’s “Splat.” (For the record, and those too disinterested to hit the links, Wikipedia’s sources also cite The Replacements too, and Bruce Springsteen; I get the latter more than the former, for what it’s worth; see the guitar in the first few bars of “Fire’s Highway”; also, "North East South West" has a cleaned-up version of the same).

To anyone following this series, my preference for “their earlier stuff” (any band’s earlier stuff) should actually bore you by now. It feels earned here (then again, it always feels earned), because, back in their youth, they felt more adventurous – or, as they say about American soccer icon, Clint Dempsey, they just tried more shit. They had a couple techniques, then, as well – e.g., like singing against each other (e.g., tight call/response patterns), or slightly off one another in choruses, in songs like “Young Hearts Spark Fire” and “Couture Suicide,” (Jesus Lizard, maybe? That feels right and wrong...haven't checked; on deadline) and that made the songs sound looser, more spontaneous. Sticking with the latter, they took bigger steps away from the “Japandroids sound” on that song and others like “Rockers East Vancouver” and, a personal favorite (even with the extended intro) “To Hell With Good Intentions,” which boasts the sneering insouciance of a smartass trying to pick a fight. Bravo, guys. Bravo…

Those wanderings away from type get smoothed over on Celebration Rock, and they’re well and truly gone on Near to the Wild Heart of Life, at least as I see it. The biggest departure, though, and what makes their most recent album feel most commercial is a conscious choice to stop burying the vocals under the guitar as they do on, say, “No Allegiance to the Queen” or – one of the best examples from the time when, as Wikipedia’s piece put it, they almost had no lyrics – “Lovers/Strangers” (crap, no video). The guitar cleans up too, they brighten it with more treble (or just a different kind of treble), and right from the opening title track (e.g., the song called “Near to the Wild Heart of Life”). Basically, Japandroids evolved to a lighter, more accessible sound and, again, god bless their endeavor. I’m less enamored, but I’m not sure that’s where their audience is anymore. Why worry about a guy like me? I barely go to shows anymore…

A couple things tie all their albums together. For one, their ready embrace of “Whoa-oh-whoa-oh-whoa” post-chorus chants. Repeated references to those super-charged youthful moments show up just as often – e.g. meeting a girl, going binge-y nuts all night. As far back (seven years now), a song like “Wet Hair” talks up “finding a ride to Bikini Island” and hoping to “French kiss some French girls” (yeah, slick lyric), or “we’ll sleep when we’re dead” in “Younger Us.” One of my favorite lyrics – “We used to dream, but now we worry about dying,” then, “I just wanna worry about those…summertime girls” (some critics say their lyrics improved, but I think that second line is dense as one gets for evocation) – pipes up way back on “Young Hearts Spark Fire,” so it was very much on their minds even then. If there’s a deeper anchoring concept to Japandroids, that’s probably it: a thought bordering on argument that, holy shit, time’s wasting people, so just fucking live!

All in all, Japandroids are a fine band, so long as you don’t expect all full spectrum experience from them. If there’s an imperative to their music, it’s in the thought bordering on argument immediately above. They’re carpe diem kind of people. And good luck to ‘em.

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