Japanther has always been a band that embraces extremes. They write extremely catchy pop-punk songs but obfuscate them with layers of noise and distortion. They embody Brooklyn’s sweaty warehouse party scene but are equally comfortable curating video installations for some of Manhattan’s most renowned museums. Given their proclivity for breaking down boundaries, it’s not surprising that for their latest LP, Tut Tut, Now Shake Ya Butt, the Brooklyn duo has attempted to marry punk rock with spoken word poetry. Unfortunately, the resulting record stands as a reminder that adventurous artists are only as good as their quality control mechanisms.
Japanther’s songs, at their core, have always been accessible but Tut Tut, Now Shake Ya Butt finds the band veering even closer to mainstream pop-punk territory than they have in the past. Sure, all of the hallmarks of the Japanther sound remain—the fuzzed out guitars and synths, the weird samples and tape loops, the vocals yelled through telephone receivers—but this time around, the melodies are more grandiose, the hooks meatier. All crashing cymbals, handclaps and soaring choruses, “Um Like Yer Smile Is Totally Ruling Me Right Now” kicks off the album proper with a two-minute blast of pure pop bliss. “Bumpin’ Rap Tapes” adds a carnival organ to the mix, to great effect, while New Bad Things cover “The Dirge” ups the tempo to breakneck speeds as its lyrics invert the traditional folk number “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?” (“I love you/No matter where you spent the night”). “Radical Businessman”, the album’s most exhilarating track, features MC Spank Rock on guest vocals, chanting “1, 2, 3, 4, fuck the cops” on the choruses amid crashing cymbals and a snaking synth line.
In short, the songs on Tut Tut, Now Shake Ya Butt are Japanther’s best yet. Unfortunately, however, these songs don’t make up the majority of the album’s runtime. That honor goes to the spoken word poetry of Penny Rimbaud, former Crass drummer and current poet and performance artist. While there’s no denying Rimbaud’s punk cred, his extended spoken word performances on this album seem at odds with Japanther’s free spirited, two-minute romps. Over the course of four tracks and 20 minutes (vs. the 15 minutes that Japanther occupies), Rimbaud takes us on a journey through Africa’s heart of darkness, as Japanther lays down a slow, deliberate backdrop of sludge. If you’re not familiar with Rimbaud’s spoken word poetry, imagine Vincent Price’s monologue from Michael Jackson’s “Thriller”, albeit longer and far more twisted and you’ll get the general idea. While I won’t attempt to unpack the meaning behind Rimbaud’s tale of colonial/sexual conquest here, it should go without saying that it doesn’t exactly pair well with Japanther’s tunes, which address such weighty topics as bike rides and the cuteness of Portland girls. Perhaps even more jarring, however, is the way that the spoken word tracks sap the album’s momentum. It’s hard to get pumped for a truncated pop-punk jam when you’ve just had to sit through 10 minutes of protracted pontification.
Tut Tut, Now Shake Ya Butt might have been more forgivable had it been marketed as a split between Rimbaud and Japanther or even a spoken word album featuring Japanther. As a Japanther album, however, it’s a pretty poor showing, a fact that’s especially frustrating when you consider how uniformly good the seven songs on it are. Tut Tut, Now Shake Ya Butt could have been a fantastic EP but thanks to artistic overreach, it’s a confounding album at best. While hardcore fans will undoubtedly want to load up their iPods with the seven new Japanther tracks, the rest of us will probably be better off waiting for the next album. Here’s hoping that it’s far less indulgent.