Mendelsohn: I’m fascinated by the sheer amount of luck it takes to make it in the music world. Not only do bands have to be good at what you do, they also have to get people to notice them, then like them, then tell other people who have a less discerning taste in music to like them as well. That sort of proposition is even harder these days with the demise of the gatekeepers, the removal of critics from their seats on high, and the overabundance of stimulation waiting to assault the senses at every turn, both in the real and digital worlds.
Take the case of the Japandroids, consisting of Brian King and David Prowse, a plucky duo from the Great White North (or soggy Northwest), who were about to throw in the towel until a certain taste-making music web site (starts with ‘P’ but doesn’t end in ‘Matters’), blessed them with some internet loving, putting the band on the road to success and two critically acclaimed albums; 2009’s Post-Nothing and 2012’s Celebration Rock (no. 2168 and no. 1066 on the Great List, respectively).
Post-Nothing was fresh and raw — a blast of feedback and just enough pop sensibilities to keep me coming back. Celebration Rock, nearly as raucous and just as loud, was a step forward as the band honed in on the pop, while pushing for better lyrical content. The result is a record that seems to be able to have a good time where ever it is at. Smokey little rooms or massive arenas, somehow, the Japandroids manage to span that gap.
Klinger: I think that’s to do with the fact that everyone, no matter where they are, can resist a giant anthem. And Celebration Rock is pretty much back to back, wall to wall anthems, with huge, wide open chords and gigantic singalong whoa whoa whoa choruses. I admit, I was having a hard time wrapping my head around this album until I started thinking in terms of their influences — their classic rock forefathers like Bruce Springsteen and Tom Petty as well as Midwest punkishy groups like the Replacements and Husker Du. All of these guys have demonstrable penchants for writing stand-up, pump-your-fist, raise-your-arms rockers, but I don’t think I’ve ever heard any group go so all out in constructing an entire album of them (maybe Naked Raygun?).
Celebration Rock is practically a concept album in its anthemic approach, something that’s underlined by the fireworks sound effects that bookend the record. And while I’m for the most part very supportive of both anthems and purposeful ambition in younger rockers, I can’t help noticing that I have trouble keeping all the massive choruses and general colossalness straight in my head. You’ve clearly spent more time with this album than I have, though, Mendelsohn. Do the distinctions even themselves out over time, or is Celebration Rock a record that really needs to be ingesting in one sitting?
Mendelsohn: If this album has one weakness, it would be the overall sameness of rapid fire riffs and shouted Oh, Oh, Oh’s. But then I find myself wondering, is that a weakness? Or is it a consequence of the band’s make up? Japandroids are just two guys looking to fill the space of a full band. To my ears, they never fail to meet that objective. The last decade has been littered with two-piece groups and none of them are able to match the sonic thrust found on Celebration Rock. I’m not trying to say that the Japandroids are better than the White Stripes (probably the pinnacle of last decade’s rock duoism), but the Japandroids are able to achieve a fullness of sound where Bruce Springsteen needed an entire E Street band. It’s no small feat.
That overpowering, anthemic rock does tend to blend from song to song but it isn’t necessarily a bad thing. There is a simplicity to it, much like the Ramones, that moves the record from start to finish in the blink of the eye. And while Celebration Rock may, at first blush, seem one dimensional, I think this is one of those records that merits repeated listening in order to start recognizing just how intricate it is in spots. There is a slow build in the back of “The House That Heaven Built” that always catches me off guard and I love the full power lament of lost youth in “Younger Us”.
You obviously recognize the influences that thread their way through this record, are there enough touchstones there to keep your interest?
Klinger: I’d say yes, and I think that’s because those influence serve primarily as touchstones rather than templates to be slavishly filled in. I know they have to have heard the Replacements’ “Bastards of Young”, but I don’t hear any specific traces of it in their music. That’s an impressive skill, much like Einstein’s advice that the secret to creativity is knowing how to hide your sources.
I do see your point about how the nuances of the individual songs take time to fully reveal themselves. It’s a slow process for me right now, but I think I’m starting to get the hang of it. I think it’s helpful to look at “For the Love of Ivy”, a cover of the Gun Club number, to get a sense for that. The first couple times I went through the album, that was a track that immediately jumped out as different (never having been especially aware of Gun Club, mind you), and its taut, compressed atmosphere really does stand in stark contrast with the rest of the album. Perhaps from there one could start to look for the contrasts that exist under the surface on the rest of the tracks as well.
Mendelsohn: I’ve listened to this record so much, that it is completely internalized and I have a hard time stepping away from it enough to really understand just how difficult it may be to see past the rapid-fire riffs and obnoxious feedback meant to make ears bleed. In my head, all of these songs are perfect pop numbers. Strip away the white noise and shouting and you are left with some very pretty verse/chorus/verse work. Honestly, I think if they toned it down a bit, slowed the tempo by ten beats or so, they would be making some very middle of the road pop music. The type of stuff that might play well on adult contemporary radio. “Fire’s Highway” and “Adrenaline Nightshift” are perfect examples. I know that sounds a little crazy, and it probably is, but I think that is what is hiding behind all the ruckus. Of course, if they made music like that, I wouldn’t listen. I like the fact that all of Japandroid’s music is just a little too fast and a little too loud.
King and Prowse show off some great promise and growth across their first two records and for that reason alone, I will be waiting to see where they go next. They managed to synthesize two different ends of heartland rock into something new and exciting and they did it within the constraints of two people — one guitar and one drum set. It’s impressive and I’m glad they didn’t throw in the towel, I’m glad lady luck smiled these two.
// Notes from the Road
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