Japanther Still Have Claws

“Take a deep breath / Dive in,” Ian Vanek sings on “Stolen Flowers”. That was exactly how I had to prepare myself before I plunged headfirst into one of my favourite bands of all time’s awesomely titled new album Eat Like Lisa Act Like Bart (that’s the vegetarian Lisa Simpson and “America’s bad boy” Bart Simpson, for you non-Simpsons fans). As if I, someone who can have entire conversations in Simpsons quotes, could have loved Japanther more.

As usual, Japanther’s newest album pounced on me out of nowhere. They always have so many projects going on – zines, collaborative or their own audio/visual exhibitions and installations, and miscellaneous musical releases – that it’s hard to keep track of all of them. It’s Japanther’s unending involvement in local arts communities, as well as their extreme commitment to D.I.Y. culture, that makes me always regard the duo of Vanek and Matt Reilly not just as musicians but as artists.

It’s no surprise then that these artists have eschewed standard ideas of what an album should be for much of their discography, having instead favoured disjointed, sample-heavy, collage-style works. Their raucous, hissingly lo-fi LP Skuffed Up My Huffy (2007) is probably the closest they’ll ever come to putting out a cohesive album; thus, I’ve never expected the band to release anything more than collections of really good songs – really good songs.

But I did say for much of their discography, not all. Undeniably, Japanther’s two previous albums, Rock ‘N’ Roll Ice Cream (2010) and Beets, Limes and Rice (2011), both had a discernable uniform sound, mainly in those albums’ glossy, sticky-sweetness; the former in particular really lived up to its delicious title.

Similarly, a mostly uniform sound can be heard on ELLALB. “The Drums Deliver” is more than the title of the album’s fourth track – ELLALB hits loud and hard. Drums thud away on “More Teachers, Less Cops”. The rapid bounce of “Do Not Resuscitate” pretty much sets the album’s pace as ’90s pop-punk guitars speed over studded drums like a skateboard flying over rocks.

But don’t be mistaken: ELLALB isn’t an aggressive album. Toy-like twinkles on “Do Not Resuscitate”, “More Teachers” and “Buy a Life” create a schoolyard playfulness. The sweetheart lyrics of “Something To Do” (“Eating at our favourite spot / Some place at the sandwich shop / Yeah, yeah, it’s a blast / Riding skateboards really fast / … At night / There’s always something to do with you,” – almost echo the Ramones singing about falling in love by the soda machine at Burger King on “Oh Oh I Love Her So”. It’s due to this playfulness, plus more specific details like the structure and lyrics of “Something To Do”, that, for the first time, Japanther resemble another band.

ELLALB is still very distinctly Japanther, despite its channelling of punk bands past. “Do Not Resuscitate”’s half-spoken lyrics and partial sampling, combined with all of the song’s previously mentioned details, are all of Japanther’s defining characteristics rolled into one. Japanther’s pro-intellectualism and anti-authoritarianism return even just in the title of “More Teachers, Less Cops”. And “A Head Bronco” returns like a ghost of their darker experimentations with its almost tribal, ritualistic chanting, especially that of the sample-heavy cuts that gave their albums Dump the Body in Rikki Lake (2003) and Tut Tut Now Shake Ya Butt (2009) their scrappy collage character.

Not only is ELLALB distinctly Japanther overall – it’s also distinct in its own right in many ways; it’s certainly not Japanther-by-Numbers. The piano-driven “125th and Riverside” is probably the most different and unexpected song Japanther has written yet, their most, dare I say, mainstream and accessible. It was as if they took lessons from U.K. pop mastermind Badly Drawn Boy. The song’s bombastic drums give it a big ballad feel but is still grounded by a fuzzed out electronic beat. There’s also “Light Weight Jealous”, jangly and out of tune, its guitars and low, low drums posturing and rumbling like unearthed Velvet Underground and Beat Happening tunes with their carefree singing as well.

Another Skuffed Up My Huffy may not be on the horizon, but you can always expect at least a generous double-scoop of fun, catchy, feel-good songs, and that’s exactly what Japanther serve up once again on Eat Like Lisa Act Like Bart. Even if their new album might not be totally original for the band, it’s not really going to make a difference because when this panther pounces, you’re going to move.

Leslie Ken Chu

Leslie Ken Chu