[14 July 2013]
Although self-billed as an “Art Project” created by members Ian Vanek and Matt Reilly over a decade ago, Japanther is most assuredly a band. More specifically, Japanther is punk of the sort that, at the risk of sounding like an old fogey, they simply don’t make anymore. Their 2013 album Eat Like Lisa, Act Like Bart is no “pop-punk” attempt, like Green Day or Offspring, nor is it resurrected hardcore of the Bad Religion or Bad Brains sort. If anything, Japanther’s latest sounds like a band straight out of CBGB & OMFUG, with audible influences from the classic era of the Ramones as well as ‘80s echoes like JFA and Gang Green.
This may sound derivative to many, and in many cases Eat Like Lisa, Act Like Bart can be just that, however, there is something refreshing about this approach; at no point does Japanther actually rip off other bands directly, even when they pay respectful homage. For example, the song “Something to Do” sounds so much like an old Ramones song (including its title similarity to the Ramones’ “I Just Wanna Have Something To Do”) that it could be mistaken for a lost demo track if not for the whimsical references to G.I. Joe and My Little Pony.
The album kicks off with the driving noise rock of “Do Not Resuscitate”, an undeniably catchy opening tune with ironically fun lyrics (considering its title and subject being about “another concussion”), not to mention its infectious refrain of “steal your heart away”. This same groove continues throughout much of the rest of the songs on the album in Japanther’s noisy, driving and resurrected punk sound. “More Teachers, Less Cops” sounds like something the Crucifucks might have released in their prime (albeit with a less grating voice) and “Stolen Flowers” maintains that backing-vocal-heavy, almost doo-wop sound the original wave of American punk tended to have (all that is missing is a loud “1-2-3-4!” from the bass player to complete the image).
Like many of the latter-day punk acts, Japanther includes sampled recordings of news broadcasts and other sources to enhance their occasional political slants (best exemplified on the Mid-East analyzing “Five Lions”). In short, it seems that Japanther has covered all the punk rock retrospective bases on Eat Like Lisa, Act Like Bart, right on down to the prerequisite JFA-like skateboard references on the aforementioned “Something to Do”.
However, also like JFA (who released a surprisingly bluesy version of the classic standard “Signifying Monkey”), Japanther isn’t afraid to diversify themselves on their 2013 record. The sixth track, “125th and Riverside”, maintains the band’s indie-rock distortion over its unexpected and skilled acoustic piano lead. Similarly, “Light Weight Jealous” is a murky, acoustic-guitar and sound effect-heavy progressive track that might have fit well on a pre-punk late ‘60s experimental track, akin to a dirtier version of the Beatles’ “Revolution 9”.
However, aside from these strange, different tracks, (that don’t even qualify for out-of-the-ordinary status), the remainder of the record continues the same refreshing yet repeated vibe throughout. No two songs sound the same, but they all do sound something like the Ramones with current references. The vocals are also often monotonous and proceed with the sameness this album is rife with. It’s not that there is anything truly wrong with the album; in fact, it is remarkably catchy and demands repeat listening. However, with very few exceptions, once the band’s thesis statement of “Do not Resuscitate” sets the stage, much of the rest of the album is expected.
There is another dimension to this “art project” called Japanther, however and the album itself only provides a part of the experience. Their live shows act out the music in unconventional ways: everything from BMX bikes to synchronized swimmers have enhanced their particular brand of performance art. Their shows are less often referred to as “concerts” as they are “installations”, so something is surely missing without the visuals they orchestrate. It is no stretch to imagine leaving one of their shows and immediately listening to Eat Like Lisa, Act Like Bart as a fitting and exciting soundtrack. Without this, I’m not sure what Bart Simpson or his vegetarian sister Lisa might have to do with this album (besides the clever title and the latter’s “FOX attitude”).
That said, as an album or a soundtrack, Eat Like Lisa, Act Like Bart is a treat for fans of classic American Punk Rock. While it is far from perfect, with its repetitive nature and predictable elements, Japanther’s latest also manages never to become tedious, even on repeated listens. New music like this is hard to come by, so fans of the genre will find at least a few things to love here. If the sounds were quite as diverse as the visuals of the “art-rock installations” promise to be, Japanther might be infinitely listenable. As they are, in spite of the final track’s title, experiencing Japanther will not result in a “Wasted Day”.