For those of us who obsess over long-gestating (and possibly even nonexistent) albums, the past few weeks have been an emotional roller coaster. First, Frank Ocean (or somebody in Ocean’s camp) suggested that the follow-up to 2012’s Channel Orange would soon appear on Apple Music, though so far it hasn’t happened, which has apparently ruined a lot of lives out there. Then, Bon Iver previewed their new (kinda bonkers!) album, 22, A Million, the band’s first since 2011’s Bon Iver, Bon Iver, at last week’s Eaux Claires festival, set for late September. Finally, there’s Japandroids, a two-man punk band from Vancouver that’s less famous than Ocean or Bon Iver, but who nonetheless reignited widespread speculation over a sequel to 2012’s Celebration Rock after announcing their first tour in three years last week.
Japandroids hasn’t promised any new music yet, but given the wait for Celebration Rock — which came out one month before Channel Orange, back when only one of the Rae Sremmund dudes was old enough to vote — any sign of life from this otherwise M.I.A. band is reason for hope. A new Japandroids record already seems well overdue. After all, the duo are not meticulous artistes like Ocean or Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon. Whatever the mannered soundscapes of Channel Orange and Bon Iver, Bon Iver are intended to signify, Celebration Rock represents the opposite. Fire it up, and Celebration Rock is incapable of purring softly; from the start, it roars with overpowering gusto. It’s a flinty machine that runs on cheap power chords and bargain-basement drum fills, with cast-iron gears lubricated with gallons of skunky beer.
(Perhaps, I’m being overly wordy here. To properly express my enthusiasm for a new Japandroids album, it would be better if I could communicate with a series of hugs and beer cans slammed against my forehead. Instead, I hope this suffices: Whooooooooa! Yeeeeeeeeeeeeeeah! Whoooooooooa!)
In terms of indie-rock — if the label “indie-rock” still suits Japandroids, rather than “punk” or even “emo” — Celebration Rock is one of this decade’s watershed releases. It is the Pulp Fiction of ’10s indie, doing for rock what Tarantino did for crime films by taking all of the cliches and conventions of the genre and reinvigorating them with canny execution and sheer, infectious enthusiasm. Like Pulp Fiction, Celebration Rock doesn’t exist in a vacuum; Titus Andronicus’ 2010 LP The Monitor mines similar territory, as does the Hold Steady’s output in the ’00s. Where Japandroids diverge is in their preference for pure sensation over intellectual or literary trappings. For the Hold Steady’s Craig Finn, youthful indiscretions are remarked upon from an adult’s distance. In the songs of Titus Andronicus, tales of woe from lead singer Patrick Stickles’ childhood in New Jersey are contextualized in a grander web of American history and critical theory. On Celebration Rock, meanwhile, the party happens in the moment, which the music evokes with every furiously strummed riff and triumphant wail.
Japandroids make music that should, theoretically, be relatively easy to produce more than once or twice per decade. And yet, when you make a record as good at being simple as Celebration Rock is, it doesn’t leave you with a lot of options moving forward. If you repeat the formula, you have to compete directly with your most beloved record (and your audience’s distorted memory of that record). If you change up the formula (assuming you’re even capable of doing that), you run the risk of losing what people liked about you in the first place. Whether any of this has weighed on Japandroids in the time since they essentially dropped out of sight, at this point, is anyone’s guess. The band hasn’t granted any recent interviews, and members Brian King and David Prowse shun social media. Album or no album, whatever Japandroids do from here will be a genuine surprise.
But let’s pretend a new Japandroids album is out by the end of the year: If this were true, it will occupy a unique space that Celebration Rock carved out four years ago, that in the meantime has been partly filled by other bands, some of whom have put out a couple of records in the gap between Japandroids albums. In a sense, Celebration Rock helped to crystallize a new subgenre for underground groups who aspire to synthesize the power and grittiness of punk with the mythology of classic rock, all while ignoring the pop-music world at a time when pop has otherwise subsumed indie culture. It’s music that celebrates outsiders, rejects, and losers with such ebullience that the oppressively curated machinations of pop’s “empowerment” era seem in comparison like a pompous drag.
Two of my favorite rock albums of 2016, Pup’s inspiring The Dream is Over and Pkew Pkew Pkew’s hilarious self-titled LP, have helped to scratch that “missing Japandroids album” itch for me. While neither band claims Celebration Rock as an influence, nor sounds exactly like Japandroids, you can hear spiritual echoes of Celebration Rock on both records, which are grade-A examples of balls-to-the-wall arena-punk that glorify youthful stupidity while also slyly critiquing it. (Both Pup and Pkew Pkew Pkew, like Japandroids, hail from Canada, which has long been a welcoming place for affable misfits.)
The Dream is Over is a semi-concept album about the weariness and wonder of life in a tour van. The subject matter is directly descended from one of the defining works of rock mythology, Bob Seger’s “Turn The Page,” but Pup gives it a modern twist. The song titles spell out a quarter-life crisis brought on by playing 200 shows per year without much to show for it, career-wise: “If This Tour Doesn’t Kill You, I Will,” “Doubts,” “Can’t Win,” “My Life is Over and I Couldn’t Be Happier.” Musically, however, Pup is all relentless energy and insolent uplift, defiantly negating the hardships (drinking problems, crumbling romantic relationships, annoying bandmates) enumerated in the lyrics. Pkew Pkew Pkew’s brand is crisis, as well, though their approach is snarkier. Take “Before We Go Out Drinking,” which opens with the following lyrics:
“We don’t make much money
That should come as no surprise
We got drunk before we left so we wouldn’t have to spend much tonight
When the money’s almost gone, we find a way to still have fun
Chalk it up to being drunk, or just being dumb
We ain’t leavin’ ‘til the beers are done”
Read between the lines and there’s plenty of desperation there. But, again, the point is always to transcend the darkness and feel the communal embrace of fellow travelers high on alcohol, weed, and guitars, like folk music for burnouts. Unlike, say, the aesthetic of boilerplate ’00s indie — arty, fastidious, lots of coy whistling — The Dream is Over and Pkew Pkew Pkew feel like boisterous keggers that ultimately honor the excesses of the rock lifestyle, damn the consequences.
Perhaps no band has indirectly benefited more from Japandroids’ absence than my favorite post-Celebration Rock band, Beach Slang. This band has had a whole career since Japandroids left the road — they formed in 2013, put out two excellent EPs in 2014, and released a full-length in 2015, The Things We Do to Find People Who Feel Like Us, that draws on the good vs. evil, us vs. them dichotomy of Celebration Rock. Beach Slang’s James Alex is similarly preoccupied with heightened, life-and-death tales of romantic youth, fashioning himself into a Peter Pan figure who posits adulthood as a kind of death and rock and roll as an elixir that preserves innocence and hope. If you found these sentiments to be a tad purple when they were expressed on Celebration Rock — or, for that matter, Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run or the Replacements’ “I Will Dare” — Beach Slang might come across as straight-up corny. (Frankly, it’s sort of corny, even if you love them.) But it’s Alex’s tireless conviction as a rock prophet that makes Beach Slang records so moving for those of us that were hooked by rock mythology at just the right age, and still can’t quite rid ourselves of it. If this guy believes in this stuff that strongly, it can’t all be B.S., can it?
Beach Slang faced the same “can they keep this up?” crossroads after The Things We Do became a critical hit last year that Japandroids still haven’t resolved. But unlike Japandroids, Beach Slang immediately recorded a follow-up, A Loud Bash of Teenage Feelings, that drops in September. If Alex felt any concern about repeating himself, he doesn’t show it on A Loud Bash, which doubles down on everything you could possibly find endearing or annoying about Beach Slang. “I won’t die so I don’t need heaven / I’m too f*cked up to burn out,” Alex snarls on “Atom Bomb,” which dares to sound even more like the Replacements than the first LP. On “Young Hearts,” Alex once again toasts “the nothing kids, the restless and forgotten” over wistful, valedictory guitar slashes. From its gushingly earnest album title on down, A Loud Bash of Teenage Feelings is a whole lot of “a little much.”
Incredibly, however, not only does none of this stuff feel tired on A Loud Bash, it’s somehow even better than the debut LP. Beach Slang’s secret — this is where they arguably top even Japandroids — is a dash of sonic sweetness. The group makes big-sounding records that recall the last time when rock music still qualified as pop, during the alt-rock era in the ’90s. The Goo Goo Dolls have lurked inside Beach Slang’s anthemic choruses since the first EP, and on A Loud Bash, Alex has added a layer of epic Siamese Dream-style fuzz to already dreamy songs like “The Perfect High.” The result is car-stereo nirvana.
Of course, it’s doubtful that any band making records like that will pass for pop in 2016. But for a generation of bands that would rather move people who truly and deeply care — the vinyl junkies and the teenaged true believers and the disgruntled aging punks — rather than go through the tired motions of trying to take over a disinterested pop scene, Celebration Rock might very well resemble a sacred text. Study its lessons about the holiness of youth, drunkenness, and guilelessness, and you too can have eternal life in the hearts of all hopeless rock and roll romantics.