Some bands I totally miss the boat with the first time around, and then wonder why. With Japandroids, I’m more assured – their first album really wasn’t that good. A garage-rock indie DIY band with lots of passion and noise and conviction, the Vancouver duo didn’t seem, at least to me, to have the songs to back up the hype. And if there’s one thing I’ve made clear when discussing the far-worse-produced but similarly hyperactive Australian bedroom bands Palms and Dune Rats recently, it’s that if you’re going to make music with these aesthetics, the songs had better be awesome. With their much-lauded new record, Celebration Rock, I feel like these guys really got there. I want to play these tunes again and again, preferably loud while driving too fast. The teenage angst and modern disenfranchisement and frustration at everything being electronic is crystallised into singular, chest-beating visions that take me back to the ’90s without necessarily sounding exactly like them. Party Of Five would have had a field day with this track. Seriously.
‘Fire’s Highway’ slams into you at high speed from the moment you press play. There’s the guitar hook drowning in its own reverb, so that every upstroke seems to kick and splutter its way out of the ocean that’s been established before it. Drum fills, like, real ones, scatter acrossit like mines waiting to be stepped on, and you get much more of a visceral impact because there’s only two of them playing. Superior recording (this sounds like a band, not a kid with an eight track, which will only be cute for so long) means that they can manipulate themselves to sound like The Gaslight Anthem or some other Earnest Yankee Rock Band despite having the exact same structure as DFA1979, who are conveniently also from the same country. I think I can hear bass in there under that wall of distortion, but it could just be the lowest string of Brian King’s guitar reverberating against the speakers. Honestly, it’s not even needed; the adrenalin and the shouting and the chest-beating of the vocals command almost 90% of the attention here and everything else is just a perfectly crafted wash of crashing and smashing.
Now, there’s an art to shouting just as there is with screaming, a fact we often mention in these pages when discussing things like Dave Grohl’s larynx. The tuneless march of something like ‘A.O.’ by The Presets is very different to the anguished and yet surprisingly tuneful belting that you get from bands like The Subways, who do kind of what Japandroids do but with an extra lick of paint and a girl on backing vocals. King’s really got that college back hall sound nailed with the rising and falling melodic arc of his vocals that moves precisely with every call and response. Given that this kind of thing is certainly not rocket science, it’s impressive how effective it is, with one line resolving the other pretty much throughout the song (you hear it to a lesser extent in the chorus, but if you track the contour of each stanza, it becomes clearer.) The effect this has overall is in turning ‘Fire’s Highway’ into a singalong prematurely, custom-built for crowds to latch onto even though they aren’t present at the time of recording. For a band as limber and loud as Japandroids, that kind of involvement would be essential, so writing tunes that fit the model is commonsense. But it has this weird ability to translate to the individual music consumer, too. Because King’s vocals are double-tracked with his and (presumably) drummer David Prowse’s as well, one feels like they’re at that sweaty basement dive moshing along with sixty other people even when they’re alone. Self-awareness has always been a small part of the punk rock ideology, but it takes a smart duo to build this into their strategy without sacrificing the rawness and becoming what The Black Keys sound like now. Right now they’re a fuzzed-out version of Thickfreakness, and that’s precisely the way I like it.
Japandroids – ‘Fire’s Highway’