Although they technically debuted in mid-2009, Japandroids remain the only rock band of record to arrive in this decade. If that sounds inflammatory, so be it. While music criticism is by nature subjective, that’s a lot closer to fact than any “alternative fact” typically trotted out during this “facts don’t matter” era. It’s both a testament to this band’s strengths, and a lament to long-gone days of rock & roll as a vibrant musical art form with contemporary cultural capital.
Point blank, rock and roll’s been dead, for more than a minute. You can disagree with me, while touting whatever hipster rock-hybrid title you want, or pretend Radiohead’s still putting out great albums despite not having made one in nearly a decade since 2007’s In Rainbows. But the last rock and roll album that really jumped out of the speakers was Japandroids’ Celebration Rock. That was five years ago. Please believe, that is not for a lack of trying. Summoning the spirit that great, unadulterated, raw rock & roll generates, is something I still seek to do. It’s also part of the purpose of the site you’re currently visiting, in paying tribute to many of those great albums of years past, among which rock boasts a large chunk. The unintended consequence of Albumism doing so, in rock’s case, underscores what the game’s been missing.
It’s also, more than likely, a contributing factor as to why the Vancouver-based Japandroids, aren’t full-fledged rock superstars yet. Will the release of this taut, eight-song, thirty-three album, Near to the Wild Heart of Life, be their tipping point? Hard to say. Because Celebration Rock, in another era, would have done that already. This one’s got a shot. Is it as strong as Celebration Rock? That’s not something you can call without the benefit of more time. If we’re making predictions, the answer is: probably not. With that being said, does it, you know, actually rock? Yes, yes it does. That is as long as you’re not one of those voicing dismay about this album sounding less “punk-rooted” then its predecessors, or other similarly irrelevant tripe. Those aren’t pet causes for which I’d be bothered to ride. Not in a world where quality new rock music has all but died. Get it where you can, sub-genre be damned.
There’s nothing particularly new or innovative about Near to the Wild Heart. “North East South West” wouldn’t have sounded out of place on John Mellencamp’s Scarecrow back in ’85. The band being a duo, with slashing guitarist Brian King and machine-gun drummer David Browse trading vocals, calls to mind the garage/blues-rock partnerships that came to prominence in the prior decade, like The Black Keys and The White Stripes. The comparisons to The Replacements, Husker Du and Bruce Springsteen have been brought up countless times since they first arrived.
The looping guitar rhythm that runs through “I’m Sorry (For Not Finding You Sooner)”, as Browse’s drums slowly ratchets up the tension, bears some resemblance to Kim Carnes’ “Betty Davis Eyes” synth line, replayed thru a feedback pedal. “Arc of Bar” sounds strangely reminiscent of Foreigner’s “Juke Box Hero.” None of these observations are meant as criticisms. It was after all, all one song, back when it began. None sound overtly referential enough to distract from sounding like Japandroids, even if at times, vocally they flirt dangerously close to Blink-182-ish-ness. Just making their own gumbo that comes out as vital rock & roll, is in itself a defiantly innovative act in 2017.
It also helps that they begin and end with the album’s three best bangers. The album-opening title track features a frantically paced chorus and a drumming tour-de-force. The penultimate song, lead single “No Known Drink or Drug,” is one of the best rock anthems in this decade. And the closer, “In a Body Like A Grave,” drives the final nail home with poetic precision: “Christ will call you out, / School will deepen debt / Work will sap the soul, / Hometown haunts what's left / Love will scar the heart, / Sun will burn the skin / Just the way it is, / And the way it's always been / And it's all in a lifetime, / And all in a body like a grave.”
Rock and roll may be pushing up dirt, but sometimes this band can make it sound saved.
Notable Tracks: “In a Body Like a Grave” | “Near to the Wild Heart of Life” | “No Known Drink or Drug”