Dusted Reviews

Japanther - Leather Wings / Dump the Body in Rikki Lake

today features
reviews charts
labels writers
info donate

Search by Artist

Sign up here to receive weekly updates from Dusted

email address

Recent Reviews

Dusted Reviews

Artist: Japanther

Album: Leather Wings / Dump the Body in Rikki Lake

Label: Menlo Park

Review date: Dec. 18, 2003

Matt Reilly and Ian Vanek, the two core members of the Brooklyn “bedroom pop blast” band Japanther, have always surrendered to an aesthetic closer in principle to the art scene than the music scene in New York. This kind of self-proclamation is always a tough one to back up, because most listeners will argue that such a distinction is purely semantics; especially for a band whose sound approaches that of the indie rock virtuoso prog two-piece (Lightning Bolt, Hella) channeling the lo-fi giants of 15 years ago (Quintron, Beat Happening, Temple of Bon Matin). One might wonder whether the simple approach of music for music’s sake isn’t ambitious enough. However, after talking to Vanek through e-mail for the Japanther Destined feature earlier this month, and having immersed myself in Japanther’s first full-length record, Leather Wings, and the brand new disc, Dump the Body in Rikki Lake, I have to say that I find this boast at once blatantly illegitimate and yet eerily on target. Rikki Lake, Japanther’s most developed and mature record to date, convinces me that craft and musical principle create the grindingly repetitive beauty of their “lo-fi soul,” stacked right behind sheer musical know-how for a sound that straddles music and art, with melodies evoking the best of pop, and anti-pop.

As a two-piece, Japanther employ only what most bands consider the rhythm section: electric bass and drum kit. Reilly digs into the bass’s upper register, pulling off arpeggiated licks that roll and roll, fuzzy with loads of overdrive and fat distortion, while Vanek duels with two intense wooden sticks on the trap set, filling Reilly’s repeated motifs with as many down beats on the muted bass and snare drums as he can fit into a phrase. “Super Loser” from Rikki Lake, touches on excellence, as a slow crescendo of these elements – overlaid with regular keyboard shimmers from Claudia Meza – climaxes in a frenzy of the straight-as-nails vocal line, “Everybody has a super loser world.” The entirety of Rikki Lake shows a band with the musical ear for submerging conscious-numbing motifs through a fuzzed-out onslaught that captures an art school aesthetic as well as the haphazardly energetic sound of those with a mission to make their own music. Pieces such as “Pleased to Meet You” and “Critical” carry the melodic overtones of oft-appearing third member Claudia Meza’s cranky keyboard to believably dark levels within the jumpy beat of what Vanek calls their “bedroom soul.” Trust me, this “soul train” chugs along quite nicely.

The boys’ first full-length, Leather Wings, was an impressive tour album, having been recorded in three different cities across the nation as an inscription of the integral link between the band’s touring and musical creation. The tracks rise and fall with found audio samples as a handhold between raw attacks of chaos and power, and more subdued bits carried along by Vanek’s intensely busy drumming. A comparison between Wings and Rikki Lake might not suggest a development in songwriting sophistication or piece structure, but simply a greater sensitivity to what actually carries melody and stone-washed fuzz to ascending heights of resonance and accomplishment. The dark motifs proffered by Reilly’s filtered bass sound eerily similar, so that as the album progresses through its tracks, they effectively layer upon one another. Still, there are a few themes that come back in identical form. The “Symptoms” suite consists of three tracks that develop one bass theme from the raw tenor distortion of “Claudia’s Symptoms,” to the dramatically over-fuzzed “Symptoms Keyed,” to the stripped-down “Symptoms Vocal” that highlights distorted vocals arising in the background, and a more raucous, live feel to Vanek’s improvised drum part. “Pleased to Meet You” and “Pleased 2” share a theme that develops into a quasi-video game bounce on the album’s closer. These moments find Japanther at its best – with the bass in fairly constant repetition, a second guitar/bass part touches on a solo before the keyboards come to the forefront in another. Beneath it all, Vanek’s linear drum improvisations require a second listen to pick up their complexities and subtle variations.

Rikki Lake, for all its unanticipated subtlety, is somewhat anomalous as a potential indie-pop album. Instrumental accompaniment washes over lyrics when they appear, though when the lyrics break through the din they avoid both wry emotion and detached irony (“Public Square” begins: “I wish I could push a button / And a rope would tie around my neck / And I would be hung in the public square / The very first day we met”). The simplicity and directness of the lyrics prevents them from shattering the hypnotic spell of the instrumentation, and the vocal delivery often comes across as simply another instrument added to the layers.

Rikki Lake is much more than just an improvement over Leather Wings; with the addition of Meza to the touring lineup, Japanther have created one of the most consistently stunning releases of 2003. This is pop music without the necessary cleverness; this is lo-fi rock without the obscure eclecticism; this is metal without the agony of riffs; this is the sound of the future of indie-rock packed into 52 and ½ minutes of boisterous, dark fun. The creation of an album such as Rikki Lake proves that there is something to Japanther’s art scene; similar elements have gone into producing some of college radio’s hippest hits in the past two years (think Interpol, Raveonettes, My Morning Jacket, etc.), but the vast difference between Japanther and another knock-off of The Cure lies in the multiplied facets of energy, production, and aesthetic.

By Joel Calahan

Other Reviews of Japanther

Master of Pigeons

Read More

View all articles by Joel Calahan

Find out more about Menlo Park

©2002-2011 Dusted Magazine. All Rights Reserved.