Think of Japanese Motors’s self-titled debut as a West Coast response to Vampire Weekend’s. While that band opted for post-punk-lite decorated with multi-culti kitsch, Japanese Motors exhibits an unambitious playfulness and while their album is certainly not bad musically, it does feel culturally irreverent. Other California bands have been experimenting with combinations of post-punk tropes fused with various other subgenres—the Cold War Kids roll with lo-fi blues accents and Delta Spirit with generous portions of Wilco-style Americana—and Japanese Motors wanders off into surf rock while dosed on the Strokes to varying degrees of success. It’s a hedonistically cheerful sound, and if only Japanese Motors and Vampire Weekend had both been released over the summer there could have been a summer-jam rivalry between two scrappy bands for the attention of the coastal elites. But amid the sobering headlines explaining the collapse of high finance and a heated presidential election, Japanese Motors feels superfluous, not sunny.
To wit, leadoff track “Single Fins & Safety Pins” is frivolous in its beach-bum ethos: sounds of waves, seagulls, handclaps, complaints about L.A. traffic, ending with a frolic in the surf. On “Regrets a Paradise,” lead singer Alex Knost moans vacant lyrics such as, “Lust is all right when you’re drunk every night/And love is so nice I realize.” It’s all so trivial that when confronted with lyrics that hint at something other than complacency, like on “Brand New Everything,” it feels shallow and uninspired: “You’ve got a brand new everything/Everything that you want you’re sure to get…You’ve got a three-piece suit for every night/Your girl has got 200 styles of shoes she doesn’t like.” And so I guess in “The Hills,” the inventory of a closet is the same thing as a political critique? It’s hard to determine, or even care, if there’s any actual outrage in those phrases, or if it’s just a lazy statement of fact.
Highlights of the record, “Pseudo Elitist Vagueness” and “Interlude,” are moderately engaging riffs that eschew vocals and burn for about a minute each. And while “Better Trends” suffers from the same thematic dullness as earlier songs (“I know some where for me/There’ll be a new exciting scene/Where I can rest my eyes again”), the guitar hooks are undeniably catchy. Even though they only offer indulgent pseudo-hip detachment here, Japanese Motors may mature and refine their ability to create a cozy atmosphere.