Give It A Spin: Japanese Motors
A man wiser than myself once told me that July 4th was the last day of summer. The Wiseman in question was my stepdad and if you truly think about it, he’s not that far off. We wait all year for the promise of summertime fun and then just as long as it seemed to take it is quickly snatched away from us. In his own sneaky way he was trying to reiterate how important it is, especially the older you get, to soak in the summer vibe as much as possible while it’s there.
The Orange County band Japanese Motors were a close approximation of that philosophy. As a fan of the band two years before their official debut, I was forced to listen to the same four demos that the band released for free download via their Myspace (remember that little old site?). It built up my anticipation for the impending properly recorded debut. With not even an official demo out, I burned the four tracks to a blank CD and titled the EP Beach Blanket Burnout, a reference to one of Alex Knost’s surf films (also lead singer of Japanese Motors). I listened to that EP the entire summer of 2008 to get myself through until October of that year when the official debut was to be released.
Eventually the day came and the Japanese Motors’ self-titled LP was released via Vice Records and what a glorious day it was for fans of garage-rock. Even if you were a hip-hop head, but surfed, you were excited. Alex Knost started off ripping beach-breaks and pushing longboarding in strange new directions, but here he was releasing a proper full-length on a pretty big label. In the surf community, it was a big deal. After some high-praise for the first single, “Single-fins and Safety-Pins,” Pitchfork ripped the album calling it a lame excuse for a West Coast Black Lips. Their loss, guys and gals, their loss indeed.
Japanese Motors is one of those rare blasts of hype that almost lives up to the hype. In fact, had the entire album been recorded under the same circumstances as the demos the band released, I can guarantee that this album would find a spot in my Top 20 rock’n’roll albums of all-time. However, probably at the nudging of Vice, the band went into a high-quality studio and had most of the edges sanded off these tunes. The reason this album is in the “Give It A Spin” section isn’t because I’m in love with the mix, but because the caliber of the music is stellar. With the raw power of the demos gone, the Japanese Motors were transformed into a ray of July sunshine with a hint of September clouds moving in.
As far as the album’s tracks are concerned, “Single-Pins and Safety-Pins” still stands as one of the most plainspoken party jams of the new millennium. The fading in of crashing waves and seagulls is a move that has certainly been done before, but rarely better. “Drop your pants and grab your shades and those single-fins/Tell your girl to grab her suit/Come’on, make it soon/We got time, the weather’s fine to lie around all day,” Knost croons (a strange mix of lounge-singer baritone, Lou Reed deadpan, and Elvis pomp). It certainly set the band apart from other garage-rockers who decided gain and volume was key, whereas Knost and the boys were having a love affair with reverb and precision. If you can’t get excited about the song-ending solo guitarist Nolan Hall pulls out then we probably differ on a fundamental level.
While the band’s early demos pointed in a surf-party direction, the album takes some interesting turns, even if these detours don’t always play to the band’s strengths. “Oh Brother” is an acoustic ballad that sits somewhere between early-morning hangover and late-night pity-fest. It has its pretty moments, but as a centerpiece to the album it sort of falls flat.
Don’t worry though because the Motors pick it up afterwards and, really, this is the only semi-dud on the album. “Coors Lite,” the mod-inflected “B.N.E.,” and “Crooked Gun” (which the demo destroys) all writhe with a sincere sense of bliss. Even by cleaning up some of the feedback, the band manages to find the soul of these songs and exploits their best elements. The album even manages to pull off two killer instrumentals. It may sound lazy, but to anyone who’s ever been in a band, it’s exceedingly tough these days to craft instrumentals that don’t lose your audience. The Motors knew these tracks were more mood-setters than head-turners, so they get in and get out. “Pseudo Elitist Vagueness” sounds like it was pulled straight out of the 60s (very Ventures-esque) and “Interlude” somehow works itself into a bluesy groove that’s half Link Ray and half Fab Moretti’s (The Strokes) drums.
I’ve blown through much of the album thus far, but three tracks remain and lucky for you they’re easily the bands best. “Better Trends” is one of the few tracks that benefits from a studio clean up. If not before, this is proof that the Motors would have been one of the biggest bands in the 1960s. A scuzzed-out Beach Boy, Knost’s sarcastic lines about “better sense…better trends/Like the day you shaved your head,” ring true regarding the constant change of what’s “in” and what’s “out” in music. Love him or hate him, Knost has been doing pretty much the same thing since he picked up a guitar.
Japanese Motors’ final two tracks, “Spendin’ Days” and “Misery & Profits,” are the most fun and most serious the band has ever been, respectively. “Misery” is indeed the darkest the band gets, but it’s bright guitar chords somehow save it from being a bona fide downer. “I don’t wanna fall asleep ‘cause I don’t wanna dream again/Every time I see your face I know this dream is gonna end,” Knost croons with an anxiety that actually feels genuine. “Misery & Profits” is about as close as one can get to sound tracking a Southern California sunset engulfed in pollution. It’s sometimes hard to fathom than a musician who spends 10 previous tracks singing about booze, surfing, scene kids, and girls still has a bummer or two he’s willing to share. But I can’t leave you, the reader, with the darkest moment on an otherwise sunshine-bright album.
“Spendin’ Days” probably should have been the first single for the LP, but it sits well in the back-half of the record. One of the few songs that actually swings (kudos to drummer Andrew Adkinson) it will likely go down as the band’s greatest single-song accomplishment. The band finds its strongest melody and if I want to remember the band for anything, it is this song.
However just as Japanese Motors were entering their summer (and keeping anyone who bought the record in the mindset of the season), Knost and the band called it quits. To my knowledge there was no formal announcement and for all I know they’re simply on indefinite hiatus, but the band’s site is dead, they’re no longer on the Vice roster, and Knost is now fronting the equally exciting Tomorrows Tulips (no apostrophe if you’re searching them online). Like no other band in recent memory, the Japanese Motors built up summer in our minds, arrived like a blowout house party on the 4th of July, and then faded into autumn like it never even happened.
Check out BANGSTYLE’s previous Give It A Spin recommendations:
Give It A Spin: T.Rex “Electric Warrior”
Give It A Spin: Q And Not U’s “Different Damage”
Give It A Spin: Hot Snake’s Perfect Trilogy
Give It A Spin: Division of Laura Lee – “Black City”
Give It A Spin: The Growlers – “Hot Tropics”