Celebration Rock

(Polyvinyl; 2012)

By Christopher Alexander | 13 July 2012

It shouldn’t make sense. The Gun Club were, second only to X maybe, the most self-consciously Californian of the Los Angeles punk wave. All of the genre’s attendant energy was always under threat of submersion by the trio’s love of simple signifiers; it was most important, at times, to wear the right hairstyle. Raymond Chandler, heroin addiction, Robert Johnson’s guitar style: these things are less influences in that band’s sound than ingredients. This produced a tension within the band that made for at least one brilliant album (1981’s essential Fire of Love) but for all its cheesy imagery—the band’s idea of damnation and salvation through debauchery seemed less Jack Daniels than Jack Chick—the band still came across as a bit too alienated for its chosen idiom. Their chief concern was looking cool—blues as cultural education, inspiration not so much.

Japandroids make music that suggest they wouldn’t know where cool began or ended, but they deliver a blistering, balls out, terrific cover of “For the Love of Ivy,” an ode to a comic book vixen. It doesn’t make sense, because it works, not simply for four minutes, but as the centerpiece of Celebration Rock, and there’s absolutely no reason why it should. An imaginary Japandroids manifesto would probably be the chorus of “Lithium”; the band believes in the big rock ‘n’ roll whoah, their music all shouted and hanging vowels, open guitar strings and loud snare rolls. But it comes across so gosh darned pure. The past ten years have seen a glut of rock minimalism or retro worship, but most of these bands seem to revel in it as an ironic pose, or else some sort of chauvinistic, know-your-roots bludgeon (the worst fears of the rockism critique, writ large; “Thunder Road” as cultural education, inspiration not so much). Not so with this Vancouver band, who labor under the impression that they make music because it’s felt. But they make nothing like the cranky, studied, unmelodic “For the Love of Ivy,” and yet they transform it through sheer brute force, the dynamic between the two members being enough to make anything a cosmic, life-affirming yeah. It isn’t brawn over brains, either, because the band seems to be fairly self-aware (previous song titles include “The Boys Are Leaving Town” and “Darkness on the Edge of Gastown”). The band seems to be that rare one that uses its intelligence to actually speak more clearly.

That last sentence shouldn’t be taken entirely literally, because the lyric sheet reads like any kind of underthought, overwrought, hurry-up-because-our-youth-is-running-away rock album. “Give me that night you were already in bed, said ‘fuck it,’ got up to drink with me instead,” they sing in “Younger Us,” the fifth of seven instantly memorable original songs. “Turn some restless nights to restless years,” they plead, together, in “Fire’s Highway,” and one forgives something about a Gypsy because the song sounds less like a debauch than, well, a celebration. “If they try to slow you down,” one of them encourages an erstwhile lover in “The House that Heaven Built,” “tell them all they can go to hell.” “The Nights of Wine and Roses” opens the album with as much as a clarion call-to-arms as can be imagined: “We don’t cry for those nights to arrive / We yell like hell to the heavens.”

Again: it shouldn’t make sense. There’s ample ammunition for a counterpoint here, as some of the writers at CMG have expressed in private. “This is the Goo Goo Dolls with a fuzz box,” said one, paraphrasing Steve Albini’s famed quip about Nirvana (in their case, “R.E.M. with a fuzzbox”). Perhaps. All of these songs seem destined for some freshman dorm’s soundtrack, and they’re catchy. But one also remembers that Albini originally said that about fucking Nirvana, and Kurt Cobain certainly had some questionable lyrical choices of his own that don’t sully Nevermind‘s reputation, because they shouldn’t.

Celebration Rock navigates that same early-twenties terrain perfectly, grasping hard for moments and memories of immortal feelings in the face of grim, boring, mortal evidence. The rock ‘n’ roll whoah, the idea that some sort of high-flown, ineffable vibe could sustain an entire album, to say nothing of a full life, reads like it’s corny, or something to be grown out of. That knot in one’s stomach upon seeing an old lover with a new person also reads like a cliched, childish feeling as well, but that doesn’t make feeling it less real. The songwriters reach for those effervescent moments throughout this album; the listener will reach for Celebration Rock to feel the exact same sensation. It works, but it doesn’t make sense, and can’t be explained. It can only be heard.