Through the years, Japanther have been esteemed for their “driving noise rock” and reviled for producing an “unlistenable clatter.” The elaborate spectacle of their live performances — which, in the past, have included synchronized swimmers, puppets, and BMX bikers — have solidified their “art punk” credentials in the press. And maybe in the band’s early days — when they were eking out blurry hip-hop-inflected tunes on cheap-sounding equipment while shouting their lyrics through toy phone transponders that cut out at random intervals — there was some validity to such grandiose praise and denigration.
Over time, though, Ian Vanek and Matt Reilly have drifted toward cleaner production and more traditional song structures, so that, almost 15 years on from when the duo formed, they’re essentially just a pop-punk band clinging to a handful of art-school affectations. Their songs are all catchy hooks and bubblegum energy, laced together with a spaghetti-pile of free-association samples and saddled with enough fuzz to flatten the dynamics out. It’s not the worst formula in the world, but it’s also not one you can rely on indefinitely without reaching a point of diminishing returns. And frankly, Instant Money Magic, the group’s 12th full-length album, is well past that point.
Not much on IMM will take long-time listeners by surprise. The most remarkable aspect of the album is its relentless concision. At 14 tracks and about 24 minutes, this may be the band’s leanest record yet, with not a single song getting within spitting distance of the three-minute mark. This impulse toward brevity helps to distill the songs down to their essential melodic core. Bouncy, mid-tempo gewgaws like “Take Me In,” “Green Juice,” and “Dreams Come True” do their work with remarkable efficiency and get the hell out of the way for the next track to come barreling through. Yet even in such a trim set, there are tracks we could have done without: “Green Jug Intro,” a snoozy instrumental interlude, and “All We Got,” which contains the regrettable lyric “I love and respect you and I know you’re gonna change the world/ You’ve already made it a better place for me.”
Amid the minor missteps and business-as-usual pleasantries, though, there is one winner of a track. Album opener “Wiggmann” finds Japanther supplementing their pop craftsmanship with an equal measure of ingenuity. The opening sample squeezes together clips from a hyperbolic 20/20-style expose on “tagging,” with what sounds like a bad techno track from a desperate-to-seem-cool afterschool special. Rather than tossing the intro aside and launching into the song proper, the group loops the sample and builds a loping waltz on top of it to create an unexpected marriage of chintz and grace.
Ever since Master of Pigeons, Japanther have been a band for people who’ve outgrown Fat Wreck Chords but not the craving for anthemic pop punk. If that’s your poison, then Instant Money Magic will definitely feed the monkey for a little while (although I might recommend someone who does it a little better). Still, if you’re like me, you’ll feel an emptiness behind all those raucous melodies, like all that candied vigor has lost its sweetness from sitting too long on the shelf.