Parquet Courts – “Sunbathing Animal”

Grade: A-

Key Tracks: “She’s Rolling” “Sunbathing Animal”

The men of Parquet Courts are growing older, but just in the sense that we all are. “Sunbathing Animal,” the second accessible full-length and third release from the band in barely a year and a half, shows hints at maturity. It’s a reluctant maturity, one of attempts at denial but eventual acceptance. The band, as they did on last year’s “Tally All the Things You Broke” EP, open up to more influences and more ideas. The always-terrific “Light Up Gold” mixed garage-rock and country influences, but was filled with a boundless youthful energy that is roped in and controlled here.

Parquet Courts seem to know that they can’t just keep playing hybrid country-punk forever. “Stoned and Starving” is one of the best songs in years, but at 5:12, it’s the only song on “Light Up Gold” that’s over 3:30. Of the 13 songs on “Sunbathing Animal,” five break that threshold, with two more only seconds away. The band is, in one way, slowing things down and introducing some more developed songwriting. “Bodies Made Of” starts the album on a deceiving, medium tempo. “Dear Ramona” follows a narrative and shows more mature songwriting. “She’s Rolling” goes past six minutes, and “Instant Disassembly” past seven, with the latter being a pseudo-ballad and the former ending in crazy, layered harmonicas.

But in another way, they’re not slowing things down at all. They’re still a punk band, and “Ducking & Dodging” shows its love for 8ths and 16ths. Its “vocals over a drum and soft guitar line” is one of the most garage-y rhythms in years. The title track provides a volume and energy blast after the slow-burning “She’s Rolling.” And there’s musical interludes, just as on “Light Up Gold.” “Vienna II” and “Up All Night” provide brief break-ups throughout the album. “Sunbathing Animal” is more drawn-out, and more expansive, but it packs as many punches as their previous works.

“Sunbathing Animal” pairs nicely with “Light Up Gold,” as a band exploring the width of their own sound. “Sunbathing Animal” is no better or worse than “Light Up Gold,” and it doesn’t immediately demand any comparisons. It’s a lot more structured, and the band is more in control of their energy. It’s still very youthful and tongue-in-cheek, still fun but serious. “Sunbathing Animal” is a distinctly different album for the band, but it’s still definitively Parquet Courts. And that should be enough of a reason alone to pick the album up.

If you like this, try: together PANGEA’s “Badillac,” a less exciting (but still agreeable) example of a garage-punk band expanding.

-By Andrew McNally

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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