Japanther – “Instant Money Magic”

(Photo Credit: blastoutyourstereo.com)

Grade: C+

Key Tracks: “Dreams Come True” “Vicious”

The other day I wrote about how the Menzingers’ followed a perfect album with one that copies the format. I praised it, because it’s a band fleshing out their image. But there is an inverse of that, and it’s what Japanther has become. Japanther found a signature sound long ago, and since then they’ve copied it to the point where it’s become diluted. “Instant Money Magic” is a surefired fun album, but one that brings nothing to the table for a band that used to specialize in that.

“Instant Money Magic,” the band’s 23rd official release in a 13 year span, is an improvement over last year’s LP “Eat Like Lisa Act Like Bart.” But just like that album, the band’s sound has become indescribably repetitive. Japanther formed as a riotous art-punk band, often basing songs around soundclips and doing performances in unique locales, but over the past few years they’ve settled into a groove of playing loud, fuzzy, optimistic surf-punk. And it’s never bad, but “Instant Money Magic” is just adding to the pile; we have way too much of a good thing. The band may have peaked with 2010’s great “Rock & Roll Ice Cream,” a short album that still had artsy elements, but presented a more straightforward energy. By now, it’s all energy, and too much of it.

Only three of the album’s fourteen songs stretch over two minutes, meaning Japanther has in no way lost their punk sensibilities. And the album is almost bursting with optimism, with titles like “Dreams Come True,” and songs with fuzzy, bright harmonies. Optimism-punk is not a genre, so in this sense, Japanther have kept it original. Japanther’s last few albums have provided energetic and fun summer soundtracks. But 12 of the 14 songs here sound too identical, all 12 being fast, guitar garage-punk, and they really don’t separate themselves from each other or their last few albums.

Albums like “Instant Money Magic” are a little tough to digest; if this were to be the first Japanther album you hear, it’d probably be a ton of fun, in it’s relentless energy and storytelling optimism. But longtime fans of the band might question their motives, with five largely identical albums in a row making their riotous art only a fond memory. So “Instant Money Magic” is both a quick listen that bridges heavy and fun, and an album that represents nothing new for the band, and feels a little lackluster. They won’t win any new fans, just check another box for their old ones.

If you like this, try: there’s tons of bands that have risen in Japanther’s wake, but my pick is Pangea’s near-perfect 2011 album, “Living Dummy”  (the band now goes as ‘together PANGEA’ but the album is credited to ‘Pangea’)

-By Andrew McNally

together PANGEA – “Badillac”

(Photo Credit: stereogum)

Grade: B+

Key Tracks: “Offer” “Depress”

together PANGEA’s previous full-length, “Living Dummy,” released when the band was still known simply as PANGEA, is an album I’ve listened to more times than I can count. It’s cohesive, fun, loud, silly and has low-key production – everything you want from a garage rock album. And every song is unique enough to make a perfect listen. On “Badillac,” the band – with a new name and on a new label – aim to diversify their music, while keeping a cohesiveness. “Badillac” isn’t as good as “Living Dummy,” but it still hits that goal.

The first song on “Badillac,” called “Alive,” sounds ripped out of rock radio instead of a California garage. It’s almost a mission statement – that the band is branching out and expanding their sound. The production is upped, although the vocals are still beautifully unintelligible sometimes. The songs are, at times, louder than ever before, or softer. More acoustic elements are incorporated, as is straight rock songwriting. The band explores their own sound, ending with a collection of songs that are more diverse, while still cohesive. The songs on “Badillac” don’t feel as related as they did on “Living Dummy,” but they don’t try to. The band set out to make more well-rounded songs, and they’ve done just that.

From a lyrical standpoint, “Badillac” is not as strong as “Living Dummy.” I’ll never forget the latter half of the first verse of “Make Me Feel Weeeird”: “Let’s talk about you now / What kind of guy is he? / You say he hates fags / Well I think he’d like me / Get bent / Get bent.” I’ve always loved the bluntness of the verse, but the lyrics are vaguer this time around. Simpler song titles – “Why,” “Alive,” “River,” “Offer” – symbolize this. The songs on “Badillac” are not as instantly memorable as before because of it. Not entirely, of course. “Badillac,” “Offer” and “Cat Man” still grab pretty quickly. But the album’s one major disappointment is the move towards more conventional lyrics.

Still, “Badillac” is a great release and will hopefully propel the band onto a bigger stage. It’s fun and it’s easy to revisit many times – all of their music is. together PANGEA are making their own thing out of garage rock, going beyond all limitations without losing the spirit. They’ve made a new identity and sound, while still resembling the old PANGEA. Hopefully they’ll keep the trend up – this could be their year.

-By Andrew McNally

Hunx & His Punx – “Street Punk”

(Photo Credit: Soundcloud)

Grade: B

Key Tracks: “Born Blonde,” “Street Punk”

Brilliantly named Hunx & His Punx have jumped to a bit of a different ship. With the most straightforward album title of the year, the San Francisco band tighten up their sound and pick up the pace. The album is titled “Street Punk” because it is, well, an effort to be a street punk band. This change is no more apparent than in the band’s album covers. The older, ridiculously fabulous Hunx & His Punx had an album cover of a close-up of a male crotch in a speedo. This album, a (faux) tattooed chest. Track eight is called “Don’t Call Me Fabulous.” The reason for the band’s switch in sub-genres is unknown, but what we’re left with is a decent transition record, over as soon as it starts.

The second track on “Street Punk” is called “Everyone’s a Pussy (F**k You Dude)” and consists of only those six words, screamed over a blistering thirty-one seconds. The album is twelve tracks, and barely twenty minutes. This is probably for the better, because Hunx & His Punx haven’t exactly mastered street punk yet. The album is full of quick punk blasts, but ones that land in between street punk and their older, girl-group influences. The result is a strange blending of ideas, one that has moments better than others, but often succeeds in doing its job. It isn’t as loud, or as consistently quick as other street punk albums. It does have the ferocity. There is anger and disgust, some coming natural and some forced. But even when it’s forced, it usually works, because the band believes it’ll work. Shannon from fellow San Fran punks Shannon and the Clams shares vocals on this record, resulting in a nice back-and-forth between singers.

Hunx is, in a way, his usual self here. He sounds the same vocally. Some of the lyrical themes are the same. Yet the band has sped everything up, and added reverb and feedback. It’s a different Hunx & His Punx, and it makes the listener wonder where the band will land next. And with the crotch and the chest taken as album covers, what’s next? What genre does the arms align with?

If you like this, try: “Living Dummy” by Pangea (2011). They’re an equally genre-less California-based punk band, and “Living Dummy” is one of my very favorite records.

-By Andrew McNally

Roomrunner – “Ideal Cities”

(Photo Credit: Stereogum)

Grade: A-

Key Tracks: “Bait Car,” “Wojtek”

The dream of the 90’s is alive in Baltimore. Roomrunner gleefully throw ode to some of the early 90’s grunge and noise rock bands. Nirvana is idolized through fast rhythms that let a punk influence bleed heavily through. Pavement is redrawn through heavy distortion that adds to the melodies and through the rough transitions between songs. Roomrunner never tries to be conventional. The opening track, “Bait Car” is an assault on time signatures that are sometimes impossible to decipher. “Wotjek” sounds like more of a poppy side to the band, until the chorus, featuring rhythms of pure feedback that are different on each passby. The finale, “Snac Error,” ends with a waving drone of guitar that takes up a good chunk of the track.

“Ideal Cities” is over in about a half hour, and it is one of the rare times where the short length of a punk album does not feel entirely fulfilling. The album wasn’t one idea stretched into a certain number of tracks, but a bunch of little experimentations that left me wanting more. This is hardly a criticism, as the band made an interesting record that sounds fresh but resembles the pre-grunge bands of yesteryear. It is melodic and noisy, all while maintaining a sense of fun. Pavement and the Pixies would be proud.

If you like this, try: “Living Dummy” by Pangea (2o12). More of a conventional (surf-)punk record, but there is a similarity between bands, I cannot emphasize enough my love for “Living Dummy”

-By Andrew McNally