Thursday, March 11, 2010
Album: Rock'n'Roll Ice Cream
Menlo Park, 2010
Rating: ******* (7/10)
Pop-punk/art-punk duo Japanther have long been a bit of an oddity in the Brooklyn music scene - you won't see them with a lot of other NYC punks or underground popsters. Instead, the bands with whom they are most closely associated are stylistically far away, united instead by attitude, and unsurprisingly, attitude more than sound defines Japanther.
That attitude, for better or worse, is clear from track one of Rock'n'Roll Ice Cream. Japanther are (usually) two dudes from Pratt and their music hints at that combination of artistic inclination and obnoxious privilege so commonly associated with their alma mater. They have always had an anti-corporate bent, this time most clearly in the opening track, a catchy pop blast called "Surfin Coffin." Their lyrics on the rest of the album, as in their previous songs, range from the excitement of being young and maybe hanging out with a girl you like a lot to the frustration of being surrounded by a seemingly passionless, anticreative world.
But it's not all good. The band runs into trouble from time to time when, as on "Surfin Coffin," their arrogance dominates their social critique. Rather than uniting, as such mildly political punk should, this divides by pretty clearly indicating that Japanther think they're better than you. And maybe they are, but they shouldn't sing about it. However, on one level, even this can be a bit charming. It reminds me of the arrogant phase most of us went through around age 14 - remember that? When you were so much more enlightened than your parents and teachers and had the world just about all figured out? It's kind of cute that Japanther have, apparently, not yet realized the error of their conceit.
Enough! Let's talk about the music! There's plenty to say... First of all, Japanther grew a bit for this record, adding Anita Sparrows not only for female vocals but also as a full-on band member with writing and recording contributions across the board. Sparrows's presence clearly opened many doors for the band and they made the most of these opportunities, all while staying true to their band's identity. It's certainly one of the most successful add-a-member attempts I've heard in a long time. Sparrows has a wide stylistic range, tackling girl-group meets surf back-up vocals on "None's Listenin" as well as her punky chant on "Surfin Coffin."
If you haven't guessed it yet, the album has a surf thread running through it, but I'm thankful to say it's not overdone. With everybody and their grannie making Beach Boys-influenced indie pop these days, I'm glad to hear someone make it work without compromising. And Japanther, though never the edgiest band on earth, are still defiant and uncomplacent even in their seaside harmonies.
Sonically, the album is subtly unique. Bringing in mainstream, big-name pop producer Michael Blum but keeping their good ol' telephone mics (which sound worse than the computer mic I sometimes use for home recording - and that came free with my parents' PC back in the mid-90's), Japanther sound muddled - but not necessarily in a bad way and certainly in an interesting one. The sound crafted is far larger than ever before, but it's as raw, young and immediate as always.
Not every song on Rock'n'Roll Ice Cream is a winner, but it's got enough syrupy sweet melodies and enough fuzzy, rumbling guitars to be worth a listen. It's not gonna change your life, but it's fun. And we all need some fun from time to time.