Japanther seemed like one of those permanent seven-scoring bands for so long, one of those bands doing a rather interesting – if not mindblowing – thing, and doing it consistently well. The band’s released nearly an album a year for the past ten years, each one another fine addition to their catalogue, cementing their style as something uniquely their own.
You’d be excused for not knowing what that style is; along with the group’s consistency comes a lack of any highlights, providing no easy in to the group despite their rather listenable influences. Those blue collar influences – old school hip-hop, hardcore punk – sit surprisingly well with their artier tendencies (live and on record, their use of noise; extramusically, their schooling at Pratt and involvement with the Whitney Museum), and the resulting sound more or less encapsulates Brooklyn. Why their 2007 single “Challenge” hasn’t become the borough’s de facto theme song is beyond me.
I’ve read more than a bit of cynicism towards the band lately, most of it centered upon the fact that their style no longer reflects a consistently-gentrifying Brooklyn. It’s true that their style fits in better with Baltimore punk (especially the Death Set) or LA’s underground scene, but they (along with like-minded Brooklynites Team Robespierre and Ninjasonik) do Brooklyn and its history more justice than high-brow artists like Dirty Projectors do. If we critics want to sit back and let the Veckatimests of the world take over the “Brooklyn” sound, we might as well invest in the high rises on Kent Ave (and, c’mon hipsters – Brooklyn still has the second-lowest per capita GDP of all the boroughs; let’s not feel so important for having “saved” a whole borough, eh?).
That said, where Japanther’s latest, Rock ‘n’ Roll Ice Cream, succeeds most is where it distances itself from the group’s most distinctively “Brooklyn” tendencies. It’s easy to attribute it to the fact that the group is simply trying something new here, and that’s half of it. But what’s also impressive is just how good the songs are that Japanther had in them – Ice Cream has enough hooks to sate Jay Reatard fans looking for a new fix.
This has led to more than a fair amount of discontentment among hardcore fans – that the record’s too “pop,” that the Lightning Bolt comparisons the band once earned are now much harder to make, that experimentation has been left behind. But this album comes two years after the pretty rough Tut Tut Now Shake Ya Butt, which saw the band chasing experimentation and falling very, very flat – going towards their more conventional side was a wise choice.
The rewards for us as listeners are great – hooks abound on Ice Cream. It clocks in pretty short – it’s less than a half-hour, and one of the songs is an acoustic version of another – but each and every song is a rousing singalong. Gone are the eight-minute spoken word passages and movie clips (though some short ones work their way into the beginnings and ends of songs). Instead we have concise, smart takes on pop-punk. It’s not shitgaze, and it’s far from Free Energy’s high-gloss classic rock-influenced guitar pop; it hits all the right pleasure points, but does so intelligently.
But if you’ll notice, I didn’t reference a specific song once in the past six paragraphs. That’s because, as usual, few really stand out from the rest and, yes, I’m gonna slap this album with a seven. But that seven comes directly after an entirely warranted score of a four and, more importantly, points towards a very rewarding follow-up. Knowing Japanther, we’ll only have to wait another year or so to hear what that follow-up consists of and, for the first time in their career, I don’t think I know exactly what that will be.