All Photos: Mark Chevalier
George Langford reaches Expert Level Rock Band status behind his arrangement of percussive toys, something that consists of, at the least, a snare, a cymbal and a set of synth pads. It’s some capital “s” Serious shit. Everyone in attendance on Thursday night at the Black Cat witnessed those talents on full display, as Langford and Tom Van Buskirk – who are, together, Brooklyn-based Javelin – ended the East Coast leg of their tour behind Hi Beams, an album they released last month via David Byrne’s Luaka Bop label (they have been joined on this tour by Detroit rockers Jamaican Queens, also a member of the Luaka Bop family). When you combine Langford’s adroitness with the musicianship of Van Buskirk, Langford’s first cousin, Javelin is more than just a band: It’s a compelling case for nature over nurture.
And, on record too, Javelin has proven to be a band worth watching over the past few years. The equally funky Jamz and Jemz (2009) and No Mas (2010) showcased an aesthetically raw approach to sample-mining and songwriting, appealingly not dissimilar in style to Avalanches. Then came the group’s first concept album, Canyon Candy (2011), which, despite being a sample-based mix tape about the American Frontier that opens with a track called “Fievel Goes West”, totally worked thematically/musically. The intrepid mythos of frontier expansion came through my speakers crackling, sun burnt, and ready for a stop at the oasis.
Hi Beams is an album that takes what it means to be Javelin one step further than certain critics – most notably one hegemonic tastemaker – have been willing to appreciate. According to Van Buskirk in a recent BYT interview, oddly aggressive critics “can suck eggs … [and] know why they can suck eggs.” Or, translated, “Fuck Pitchfork.”
Van Buskirk’s point is tried and true: The triumph of the mean-spirited journalist over the well-intentioned musician is perhaps the most ancient injustice in all of rock band-dom. Unfortunately, Hi Beams lies somewhere outside the defendable regions of the indie pop stratosphere. Borrowing stylistically from a who’s who of the genre’s somewhat-recent darlings (Cut/Copy, Toro Y Moi, Sleigh Bells and Yeasayer, the latter two Javelin toured with in the recent past), the track list is rife with songs that only the most sympathetic fans of Javelin’s previous work stand to enjoy. The album comes off as a case study in aesthetical delusion – more like “Javelin does Yeasayer’s Odd Blood” than Javelin takes a brave leap forward. In doing so, the band shuns what made a lot of their past releases so charming and fun.
It isn’t as though Javelin was ever a band that stood on the strengths of its lyrical content – when not employing deftly sampled vocal touches, Van Buskirk’s rhymes have always been amusingly tongue-in-cheek – but the lyrics throughout Hi Beams distinguish it among its catalogue as an example of what doesn’t work, as far as things poetically “cute” are concerned. Take, for instance, this excerpt from “Friending”, a song about being friends, expressed in the unique parlance of our times: “We were talking about all the time that we’ve been spending / do we, do we have an idea of all the time we’ve been friending? / I think we got a good idea of all the time that we’ve been wasting”. Van Buskirk has a great ear for melodies, and his voice isn’t bad either – he could stand to dig a bit deeper for lyrical inspiration, if he’s intent on trying to say something.
Javelin’s live performance, however, successfully reminds me why I listened to Hi Beams more than a couple times: it has moments. “Airfield”, a definite Hi Beams standout, is also the highlight of the evening – which is notable, in a set that includes its fair share of material from Javein’s earlier albums. The lyrically frustrating “Friending” buzzes with persuasive elements of pop ingenuity that have me and the rest of the crowd dancing along, which I would never have been aware of had I been left with the polished album version, where the words take an unfortunate place in the foreground. Live, Javelin proves to be a witty display of a multitude of talents, and beyond that, an exhibition in what it looks like to have a blast doing ones job.
During their much-loved, sample-driven oldie, “Vibrationz”, the cousins bring out all the instrumental stops, Langford crafting the beat mostly from scratch on his part synth, part OG drum kit, and Van Buskirk singing along with the sampled vocal line while supplying a danceable bass riff. Langford’s percussive talents shine during a rendition of “On It On It”, during which the set takes a well-received detour into sustained groovage. These guys are more musicians than crate-digging sample jockeys, despite what anyone might want from them otherwise.
Javelin gained an early following by putting together a quirky live show that featured a collection of old boom boxes, through which the it would broadcast a crunchy array of samples, some wild kazoo stylings, and a spattering of improvised rap lyrics. (See: “Soda Popinkski”.) On Thursday, the faces of those boom boxes were presented as an allusive backdrop – a tribute to the old days – as the pair have transitioned to a much more instrumental approach to performing live. To my great satisfaction, the kazoo still makes an appearance.
Catching up with Van Buskirk after the show, he informs me that he has only been playing the bass – his primary instrument throughout most of the set – for a year and a half. The most interesting part about that isn’t the fact that Javelin has been around since 2004. Nor is it that, for the better part of the past hour and a half, Van Buskirk has been on stage singing a difficult array of pop hooks, all the while functioning perfectly well as the bassist in a very impressive two-man rhythm section (at times he verged on Carl Newman front-man bravado). The most interesting part about it is that Van Buskirk has taken up this new instrument for fun.
“It was really hard but a lot of fun, getting to the point where I could play these songs on the bass and sing them at the same time,” he tells me.
My distaste for Hi Beams most likely stems from tension within my own life, and a deep fear of anything that comes across as “fun for fun’s sake” – let’s be honest about that. Whatever my opinion might be, there’s definitely something to be said for a man so dedicated to finding his next sound that he’s willing to pick up a bass and teach himself how to bring an entire album to life for a live audience in time for a tour across the country. That much deserves to be recognized. Don’t mind me, Javelin – I’ll be sucking on eggs.
Additional contributions by Phil Runco