[15 July 2014]
PopMatters Assistant Editor
Years later, the central weakness of pop-punk remains the same: very rarely did the latter half of the genre’s name ever really kick into overdrive. On paper, mixing punk’s aggression and energy with the accessibility and simplicity of pop is an appealing strategy; however, as anything Blink-182 has recorded in recent years attests, too often punk got swept under the rug in favor of Warped Tour-friendly, hooky choruses. Even those pop-punk records that approached the level of intensity one would associate with the word “punk”, such as Sugarcult‘s Lights Out, give way to songwriting that’s ultimately beholden to radio-friendly fare above all else. Part of this issue is the archetypal pop-punk vocalist, captured with comedic precision in an inspired YouTube video. The kind of tenor vocal commonly found in pop-punk is just too affable, and at times too cute to be taken seriously as an aggressive force.
Charlie Kerr, the frontman of the Vancouver-based JPNSGRLS (say “Japanese Girls”), fits this archetype in many ways. The opening track of the group’s debut LP, Circulation, finds him name-dropping The Sandlot and talking about the “kitty kats” one sees while on drugs. He does get some solid screams in as well, but on the whole he seems exactly like the kind of singer who could too easily take the edge out of any real attempt at punk grit and vivacity.
What a surprise it is, then, that Circulation finds Kerr matched by a band that knows exactly how to balance the approachability of pop with the full-throated techniques found in punk rock. The album’s energy and creativity bring to mind the Dillinger Escape Plan, who is likewise able to compound beauty and brutality into a deceptively accessible mix. The musical diversity on Circulation is such that it elevates Kerr’s vocals above their otherwise youthful sound. Though it’s easy for a singer like Kerr to sound goofy when backed with instrumentation much heavier than the quality of his voice, he matches his bandmates’ propulsive playing step by step. Overall, the only really silly thing about JPNSGRLS is their name; though they wisely wrote it in its all-caps formation so that “fans got what they were googling for”, it’s just a touch too quirky for its own good. (The name is a tribute to the Japanese rock outfit Mass of the Fermenting Drugs.)
Fortunately, that is a minor flaw in what is otherwise a highly impressive debut outing. “Smalls” sets a mercurial stage for the rest of the LP, with Kerr’s rockabilly-esque vocal delivery jetting atop consistently shifting musical ground. Album highlight “Brandon” concludes with the kind of joyous tremolo picking that made Deafheaven‘s Sunbather so compelling last year. The guitar tone on closer “Oh No Echoes”, which mixes together Jack White-esque retro rock and bluesy note bends in a memorable fashion, is excellent. (“I don’t got the blues, but the blues got me”, Kerr sings, aptly summarizing the rock revival mood of the tune.) Circulation definitely has the genre hopping bug, although fortunately the band gives these 12 tunes a pop center that is equal parts hooky and biting.
Circulation also benefits from Kerr’s witty lyrics, which quite often sneak up on the listener from out of nowhere, making intriguingly phrased statements out of what might have otherwise been mere sing-along fare. The main refrain of “Smalls” begins simply as, “There’s more to life than getting used”, but then Kerr throws in two words that heighten the observation significantly: “There’s more to life than getting used to death.” “Brandon” tells a similarly weighty narrative, which ends with a particularly haunting farewell: “I finally saw the blue in her eyes / At the morgue.” Kerr undercuts the last line somewhat with his peppy repetition of the word “morgue”, but, on the whole, the line ends the short little number with a real gut-punch, further magnified by the aforementioned tremolo picking.
Elsewhere, Kerr spouts off cheeky quips that add to the massively fun time that is Circulation. On “Far East”, he points out that “boarding schools have the best cocaine.” The fantastic “Southern Comforting” is bolstered by the rhetorical, “Maker’s Mark is mother’s milk, isn’t it?” These observations add to the eccentricity of the music in a noticeable way, which helps the songwriting that JPNSGRLS are doing here stand out in a distinct way.
The only times Circulation falters are when the balance becomes either too poppy or too aggressive; as is the case with pop-punk generally speaking, the mistake usually manifests in the former taking over. The title track, which follows the record’s best cut (“Brandon”), feels pedestrian in its power chord-driven chorus when compared to the songs that surround it. Aside from “Oh No Echoes”, the latter stretch of these 12 songs loses some momentum following the three strong opening numbers. But the weaknesses of Circulation derive not from holding back but rather biting off more than can be chewed. Their odd name aside, JPNSGRLS have made a debut that does what pop-punk failed to do for a good chunk of its history: balance its two key sonic components. Not only that, but the band has loaded Circulation with a great deal of personality, one that smartly borrows from a whole range of rock styles. Kerr is right that there’s more to life than getting used to death, and he and his cohorts in JPNSGRLS clearly live up to that mantra. Circulation is the sound of a band for whom the primary concern is living live to the maximum, and JPNSGRLS more than measures up to that goal.