Friday, June 15, 2012
REVIEW: Japandroids -- Celebration Rock
"Whatsoever is material, doth soon vanish away into the common substance of the whole; and whatsoever is formal, or whatsoever doth animate that which is material, is soon resumed into the common reason of the whole; and the fame and memory of anything is soon swallowed up by the general age and duration of the whole." Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, The Seventh Book
"Bullbats hawk the insects in the warm air next to the pavement." Walker Percy, The Moviegoer
"Sweet JESUS, my heart is beating faster and faster." Art Brut, "Modern Art"
I'll make a confession, for what it's worth. A few months ago I read some interview with Japandroids guitarist Brian King where he said one of the things about their then-upcoming album, Celebration Rock, that would be different from their 2009 debut was that he actually had written lyrics. I thought this was a terrible idea. After all, it was the irreverent exuberance of those repeated lines that made Post Nothing so special. You could write all the lyrics from that entire record on a single square of Charmin. I love that record with a fanatical abandon (it was my '09 AOY with a bullet, as they say) and have challenged any willing music dweeb to name any three song cycle on any album that can match the sheer heart-pounding joy of "The Boys are Leaving Town "/"Young Hearts Spark Fire"/"Wet Hair" from that record. So my concern with this lyrics business was that someone had hijacked their sound, and the new record would be a canuxsploitation -- you know, complete with a cover of "Fight the Good Fight" by fellow countrymen Triumph.
Well, not for the last time was I dead wrong, and now, after about 30 times through this 8 song dervish of a record in the past 2-plus weeks (damn right I preordered from Polyvinyl and got it a week early), I am ready to close the books on the album of the year. Hell, I'm ready to enshrine it in the canon right now so I can look smart 20 years down the road. This album is a bracing, jarring, sonic joyride by two guys who know how to play their instruments, and who also have been reared in the rock and roll temple.
Although King and drummer David Prowse always have worn their influences on their collective sleeve, covering the likes of Mclusky and Big Black on earlier releases, and monkeying with a Thin Lizzy song title on the debut, their brash cover of The Gun Club's tribal-gothic "For the Love of Ivy", even (thankfully) subbing in "answers" for the racial epithet near the end of the song, is an unqualified success. The dirty production and fuzzed vocals on the song match the sense of menace in the original without any cheap attempts at mimicking the unique wail of Jeffrey Lee Pierce. The song is from the 1983 album Fire of Love, which I consider to be one of the 20 greatest rock and roll albums of all time. Covering "For the Love of Ivy," though, is just the most overt homage to the album. On Celebration Rock's third song, "Evil's Sway," the repeated "sexual red" imagery is lovingly borrowed from Fire of Love's psychobilly anthem "Jack on Fire."
I haven't had the time or the need to parse out the lyrics, but the new approach works. For now, the lyrics are like great impressionist art, in that the fragments may be inscrutable, but when experienced as a whole, the message is clear:
Celebration Rock has the pacing and feel of 70s vinyl recordings, when bands used to group songs into two cycles, one for each side. Here, each side begins with three relentless power anthems followed by something to check the inertia. On "side one" it's the Gun Club cover, and on "side two" the album closes with "Continuous Thunder," a slower, almost wizened coda along the lines of the way the Hold Steady seem to like to finish their records. In all, it's the best 34 minutes committed to record in a year that's shaping up to be mighty strong for good music. Go buy it, and go see their excellent live show. For a glimpse of the latter, check out this recent performance of "Fire's Highway" (more Fire of Love imagery) on Fallon, with my apologies if you have to sit through a commercial (it's worth it).