Thursday, July 19, 2012

Record Review: Japandroids - Celebration Rock

Let me reiterate one very important thing straightaway: this album is called Celebration Rock. Not that you, the listener, were approaching this thing expecting any sort of intellectual epiphanies. After all, this is a band whose debut's thesis was, essentially, “Let’s get to France/So we can French kiss some French girls”—or, rather, that’s exactly what it was. Vancouver drums-and-guitar duo Japandroids exploded unexpectedly from the Great White North a few years back with an album of absolutely zero pretension and of a single-minded goal: to get fists pumping and bodies perspiring. Obviously, it was called Post-Nothing. As awesome as the results were, however, it’s not exactly a formula built for the long haul. Which is why Celebration Rock feels like such a triumph: Here’s a band doing exactly what they love and, thankfully, what they do best for 35 straight minutes—and all without apology.

Nothing about Japandroids should work. I’ve spent an embarrassing amount of time over the years trying to convince myself that these guys are opportunistic everydudes tapping a market with so little life left that they can’t help but feel unique. Their lyrics, as mentioned, are so ridiculously trivial that you can’t help coming away from the experience feeling something like a road scholar. In short, they play against everything I think art should be striving to achieve. And yet their pull is undeniable, their energy infectious and second-to-none, even in a year of noteworthy indie- and garage-rock. Is what they do important? I’m not sure if I have an answer to that. But if creating music that makes me feel invincible, like I can grow wings and save the world—and in turn, that the world is actually worth saving—then yes, Japandroids are important and Celebration Rock is their vital monument to life itself.

After being blown away in my chair a bit listening to Celebration Rock, I went back and listened to Post-Nothing again to compare. Not many gave Japandroids credit at the time, but Post-Nothing is an impressively dynamic record, slightly rougher around the edges but confident enough to toss around some tricky rhythms and vary the tempo to maintain some semblance of pace. It wouldn’t seem to be a wise move, then, but Celebration Rock mostly forgoes both those characteristics, opting instead for a balls-out rush of intensity that rarely lets up or changes trajectory. There were moments on Post-Nothing that felt like Brian King and Davis Prowse simply couldn’t keep their stamina up. Granted, this resulted in a great slow-burn love song like “Crazy/Forever” and a tumbling confessional like closer “I Quit Girls.” Here, it’s less a trade-off than a reconciliation. The band’s overriding themes—drinking, girls, growing up; lamenting the results of drinking, girls, growing up—are folded seamlessly into their headlong rush instead of individuated as obligation to specific structural or tempo-dictated rules.

Luckily, theirs is a cyclical plight. They may have quit girls as Post-Nothing came to a close, but their back at it on Celebration Rock opener “The Nights of Wine and Roses”: “Long lit up tonight and still drinking/Don’t we have anything to live for?,” King asks, before answering swiftly, “Well of course we do/But until they come true/We’re drinking”—because, well, what better way to get over a girl than to get drunk and go prowling for another one? Japandroids make music that is almost embarrassingly sincere, and it wouldn’t translate nearly as well if we all hadn’t experienced similar feelings or taken part in equally questionable activities growing up. Of course, it helps when you can put your message across via a series of increasingly infectious anthems. It reads like the dumbest thing ever penned, but I challenge anyone not to have a beer raised in a toast by the time King and Prowse scream in unison, “We yell like hell to the heavens!,” as the first track climaxes.

And from there it’s straight fire. “Evil’s Sway” and “Fire’s Highway” tear forth with choruses built for stadiums ten-times the size of the clubs these guys are still confined to; the latter introduces the album’s main theme, aging (“She’ll kiss away your gypsy fears/And turn some restless nights to restless years”), with a naively youthful vigor, while the former features the most intrinsically awesome “Oh yeah!/All right!” hook you’ve heard since arms-folded indie posturing became the new blind-rage slam-dancing. And only on an album like this would a faithful cover of the Gun Club’s “For the Love of Ivy” play like a respite from the surrounding intensity. It’s the only song here I wouldn’t classify as out-and-out great, but even it works as a transition into the album’s somehow even more effective back half.

Indeed, side two is essentially perfect. “Adrenaline Nightshift” begins with a proclamation—“Hitchhiked to hell and back/Riding the wind”—and proceeds to careen as if carried by just such natural phenomena between a life experienced and a future unwritten. It’s another unapologetic burner, and it makes one acutely aware of the tight rope these guys continually walk. Maintaining momentum is a difficult task when you rarely slow up, but the last three songs on Celebration Rock are the three best songs Japandroids have ever written. “Younger Us” is the entire Japandroids experience in three-and-half minutes flat: searing guitar lead, reckless percussion, and a nostalgic streak so sincere (“Gimme that night you were already in bed/Said ‘fuck it’ got up to drink with me instead”) that one can’t help but be swept up in the testosterone-fueled abandon. Meanwhile, “The House That Heaven Built” finds King getting more realistic than ever before about the opposite sex and coming away stronger for his efforts. The song’s chorus—“When they love you and they will/Tell them all they’ll love in my shadow/And if they try and slow you down/Tell them all to go to hell”—is all pent-up frustration and over-compensated aggression. It’s also one of the most inspiring moments 2012 has given us.

Finally, there’s closer “Continuous Thunder,” a noticeably mature dissection of a relationship when compared with the band’s previous not-so-fond farewell. “If I had all the answers/And you had the body you wanted/Would we love with a legendary fire?,” King ponders over boiling distortion and rumbling percussion. It’s a universal sentiment, and in that sense no different than what these guys have always trafficked in. But it’s also a sharper, more exacting indictment of human folly and the expectations we foist upon each other. So in the end—and this is what I feel is the biggest take away from the album—Celebration Rock is not simply a celebration of music, though it does accomplish this feat with overwhelming passion. This is an album that celebrates our finite existences and our shared experiences. More than most music of its kind, it preaches that there’s always something to live for, some everyday experience worth persevering life’s ills for, even as we take most of these pleasures for granted. So is it important? Again, I’ m not sure—I’ll get back to you when my feet touch the ground. [InRO]

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