The release of the second album is a fabled concept amongst rock commentators. Some assign it epic value – the definitive answer as to whether an artist or band will amount to anything over the long-haul. Others will more reasonably suggest its simply the album that follows a debut, nothing more or less. The truth, like most things, likely resides somewhere in the middle, which is the case of Champ by the Toronto indie outfit, Tokyo Police Club.
While I'm certainly not attempting to project some ultimate prognosis on the career of the young group, their sophomore release, out this past June 8th, shows a trajectory of maturity in both songwriting and performance demonstrated recently by The Gaslight Anthem on their recent American Slang (yeah, I probably cannot go a week without referencing them). On the Club's previous LP, Elephant Shell, and earlier EPs, A Lesson in Crime and Smith, the quartet largely employed a throttle-up, run-n-gun approach, sometimes sounding like a cleaner John Spencer Blues Explosion and others similar to a more jarring Strokes, producing speedy and driving skinny-jeans style power punk. Here, they tone down the fury a bit and settle into a more composed, but no less forceful format that retains the core of their sound but adds new tools and smarts to their work. However, similar to earlier efforts, Champ can be navigated in its entirety during the course of a morning commute to work, rounding out its dozen tracks in a brisk 37 minutes.
The evidence of this evolution comes early, on the opening track, "Favourite Food" (note the superflous "u" signifying their Canadian identity). Hark, it's an acoustic guitar intro for well over the number's just-under four minute duration, a component nowhere to be found in the band's previous material. Singer/bassist Dave Monks situates the listener in the past, likewise a rare occurrence in his preceeding lyrics, suggesting a "looking back on your days / How you spent them all in a blur / When they asked if you were for sure." It's an entirely new sound for the group, and one that's all the more stark a contrast at the collection's outset, even as drummer Greg Aslop eventually infuses the number with more pulse later on, and guitarist Josh Hook and keyboardist/guitarist Graham Wright introduce more of the band's signature flavor, alternating clean, Mick Jones-style riffs with jangly delay loops a la The Edge.
But the real mark of the foursome's new direction is on the following number, "Favourite Color." With Monks and Aslop laying down its "1979"-influenced rhythm part, the song's narrative is the most developed Monks has yet offered, its protagonist inquiring about the number's title subject and "your younger brother." Even though he tosses up clever lines such as, "Like KC & Jojo / like Sunny & Cher / You're Tina, but I'm not Ike," he steps further away from his younger flirtations with Iggy and closer to a more mature relationship with Bruce with, "the national child star, in a coat and a scarf / Alone in the laundromat," a line that wouldn't appear out of place on "Blinded By the Light." Moreover, the musicianship supplied by Hook and Wright is loose and more improvisational than the stabbing cuts they offered before.
After a "Breakneck Speed" that is not, in fact, indicative of its title – again capturing the more restrained mood – the infectous and breezy first single, "Wait Up (Boots of Danger)," steers the ship a bit back towards their previous catalogue, but without the gnashing sneer of earlier offerings that limited their accessibility to hipsters in the indie scene clubs. Some of the swagger that fueled the Strokes' "Last Night" to a larger audience is present here, and their aim for that same spirit is self-evident, as Monks describes "the music and the lights and everything" on top of the number's nervous energy.
And yet, as much as I like the record's first quartet of tunes, I equally dislike the following "Bambi," whose schitzophrenia is too distracting considering the well-crafted material before it. Additionally, Monks explores the lowest reaches of his register here, which is hard to execute in his nasal-throaty voice much in the John Linnell / Colin Meloy mold (by comparison, singers like Neko or Chris Cornell fuel their vocals from the lungs). Now, plenty of singers do fine with less-than-stellar tones – not only folks like Linnel and Meloy, but also Billy Corgan and John Lennon – and Monks simply needs to settle in the heart of his range as he does on the rest of the album.
A pleasant deep-cut discovery is "Gone," as in "to the coast" or "on the beach, where I let my ship sail." Hook's stabbing guitar riff establishes the song's motion from the first chord, while Wright's wafting organ part at the first chorus delivers the tune's lighthearted feel, as Monks emplores us to let our hair down. Any fan of Weezer's "Surf Wax America" will be delighted with this number.
Come for: "Wait Up (Boots of Danger)"
Stay for: "Gone"
You'll be surprised by: "Favourite Color"
P.S. Tokyo Police Club headlines tonight at Washington's Black Cat club. Opening act, Arkells, hailing from down the Q.E.W. from Toronto in Hamilton, are generating a bit of buzz. Expect a follow-up review here should that buzz be justified.
P.P.S. This is the third consecutive review of a Canadian artist. I can assure you the trend will continue next week.