- SPIN Rating:9 of 10
Vancouver drum-and-strum duo Japandroids confront the passage of time on their sophomore album, Celebration Rock. Specifically, they slap that bastard in the face and burn wheelies on his lawn before heading out for the best bender ever, secure in the knowledge that you can stave off the complacency of adult life if you just believe hard enough in the power of bro-hugs, oh-oh-oh backing vocals, and fist-pump-inducing fuzz riffs. As an old Pavement seven-inch sleeve put it, They Are Made of Blue Sky and Hard Rock and They Will Live This Way Forever.
It's a total fantasy, of course — one more modest than Rick Ross's King Don boasts or heavy metal's epochal conflagrations, but just as elusive and appealing. What gives Celebration Rock its charge is the sense that Brian King (guitars) and David Prowse (drums), both 29, are precisely old enough to know how silly it is to still act like loud music and your best friend are your only hopes for salvation… but young enough to still need to believe it's true anyway. If only for four minutes at a time.
Songwriters from Elvis Costello to the Hold Steady's Craig Finn have tackled this idea many times, but always with a lovingly bemused critical distance. King and Prowse are right in the thick of it, too young to have a song called "Younger Us," but nonetheless fearful that they're nearing the age when most people don't have time for rock'n'roll anymore. They're mellowing, and that's terrifying, and makes them play that much harder and love that much more fiercely as a result. This is all remarkably hokey, but then, so is every single love song ever written, and Celebration Rock is full of youthful, passionate love songs to youthful passion itself: "Remember that night you were already in bed / Said, 'Fuck it' / Got up to drink with me instead?"
After years of fruitlessly sweating it out onstage every night, Japandroids were about to break up when their desperate youth anthem "Young Hearts Spark Fire" caught flame online; their 2009 debut, Post-Nothing, went on to provide a necessary counterpoint to the Percocet beach party that was the Summer of Chillwave, powered by two rock geeks willing to lay it all on the line, tossing in a nice Bikini Kill joke just to prove they're not over-earnest all the time.
Though they're usually pretty damn earnest. Though the songwriting is on the whole more consistent, there's not a lot of fixing what remains defiantly unbroken on Celebration Rock: same dedication to an eight-song tracklist, same live-in-the-studio feel via engineer Jesse Gander, same rage against the dying of the light. Which might imply a lack of ambition, but smart decisions abound here, starting with the recycling of "Younger Us" from a stopgap singles series, as that song is too beautiful not to milk completely. Their cover of seminal sleaze punks the Gun Club's "For the Love of Ivy" is an equally canny move, demonstrating good taste and an appreciation for anger and menace, even if anger and menace rarely color the duo's own work. And paring this all down to 35 minutes was another good call, as even top-shelf bursts of searing feedback, blitzkrieg-bop tempos, and an open-hearted need to connect can drain even the staunchest believers after awhile.
Japandroids come off like a ramshackle garage-punk band weaned on the Replacements and Nirvana, but one doing their best to recreate a Billy Corgan/Kevin Shields-style Wall of Guitars on a budget that those other guys probably wasted on guitar picks. They may have forgotten to take out the trash, Ma, but they remembered to pick up a whole mess of delay pedals. There's a blissful drone floating atop the agitating outbursts of opener "The Nights of Wine and Roses," while the crescendo of "Fire's Highway" slashes at the heavens like Bob Mould by way of forgotten Buzz Bin guitarmy Hum. Because it's album two, they're obligated to stretch out and slow it down with a ballad, obliging with closer "Continuous Thunder," which slowly builds a loping melody and clouds of wounded hiss into a bliss-pop hybrid of Jimmy Eat World and Beach House — a guaranteed mixtape staple for people who still make mixtapes. And let's take a second here to acknowledge Prowse, who drums like a nervous, violent heartbeat but can lay back when it's called for.
It's very rarely called for. The idea that there's an alternative to the drudgery of sacrificing the ideals and energy of your youth for a steady paycheck — that if you just try hard enough, you'll never be bored again — is rock music's most primal subject. It's where Thunder Road leads. It's what lies beyond the Suburbs. It's Paradise City, where the people are young and alive and the city center can still be the center of your scene. When handled with care and purity and sincerity, these tropes will always bring you to the mountaintop; the true believers in Japandroids are celebrating themselves on Celebration Rock, noting, amid a wall of chain-linked whoa's on "Fire's Highway," that "We dreamed / And now we know."
On "The House That Heaven Built," King sounds like a man fighting hard to retain a sense of himself amid endless doubts, banishing all who tried to slow him down to hell, then finishing them off with an forceful exhale of an outro that feels like it will never stop escalating. These two know how hard they've worked to buy themselves some time, and how expensive and precious time can get, the darkness of maturity creeping closer but never quite arriving. This is not the sound of settling.