Indie-electronica duo move towards a more pop-friendly sound, but are their songs as strong as the sample-based soundscapes they used to make?
Who would have figured that Javelin would resort to writing pop songs? For years, George Langford and Tom Van Buskirk had mastered a specific kind of frenzied, sample-based songwriting that made for especially kinetic music, but didn’t fit neatly into any sort of pop structure. Both their CD-R comp Jamz n Jemz and their official debut No Mas stand as some of the best indie-electronica of their time, proving that Langford and Van Buskirk’s command of the genre exceeded many of their peers. In this light, Hi Beams becomes especially weird. Aside from the first single, the very "now"-sounding “Nnormal”, most of Hi Beams doesn’t sound much like Javelin at all. The end result is almost a completely different band, but one that proves just as adept at traditional songwriting as they were at crafting sample-heavy soundscapes.
Even “Nnormal” doesn’t necessarily sound similar to what Javelin have done in the past, but it’s not hard to imagine the band going down this route at some point in their careers. It’s also one of the worst songs they’ve written, a sluggish song buoyed by a stuttering beat and absolutely ruined with some of the most inane lyrics on the album. They even commit a mortal sin against lyric writing by cribbing a couplet from “Twinkle Twinkle, Little Star”. That moment alone is so cringe-inducing that it’s possible to dismiss the rest of Hi Beams outright. Thankfully, the rest of the album is considerably stronger.
Taking a path championed by late 2000s indie rock royalty like Animal Collective and Yeasayer, Hi Beams adjusts Javelin’s use of samples drastically, moving away from the frenetic sound-mashing of the past in favor of a more song-friendly view on sampling. Lyrically, though, Javelin avoid emulating the domestic bliss and anxiety of Animal Collective or the romanticism of Yeasayer, opting instead to focus on themes like modern alienation and the indie music scene itself. Nowhere is this more effective than on “Light Out”, which sounds like a plea to a generation of Internet-based musicians to not give up when online fame doesn’t translate to brick-and-mortar success.
Even though Hi Beams represents a considerable sonic departure for Javelin, the band acclimate themselves very well to a more pop-oriented songwriting format. The production on the album gives the songs more room to breathe, thus affording a few of the melodically weaker tracks some sonic heft. On the songs where the composition quality matches the recording quality, such as on the sublime “Airfield” and “Drummachines”, the results are among the band’s best work. Javelin even find time to reach the dizzying heights of their previous work with “l’Ocean” and the instrumental “Judgement Nite”, but even those songs are sharper and generally more focused than the band ever were.
I suspect that if you enjoyed Javelin’s previous work, Hi Beams will require a bit of an adjustment period. Depending on what's expected from the band, some fans will likely have an initially lukewarm reaction to what Langford and Van Buskirk are trying to do here. Give it time, though, and the various dimensions of the album open up, revealing a band that’s capable of more than what many people expected of them. For any of its faults, Hi Beams is a fearless record from a fearless duo and it can only get better from here.