April 26, The Outer Space, 295 Treadwell St., Hamden, theouterspace.net
When artists switch up their game, people tend to pay a little closer attention. When a famous folk singer goes electric, say, some fans get a little squeamish. Or when in 1992 the Beastie Boys went from attitudinal rappers to a full-fledged band — strapping on guitars and getting behind drum kits — and releasing their third record Check Your Head, no one was sure it was going to end well. That's how it used to be at least. The stakes are maybe not so high for the duo Javelin, who are admittedly not a household name. But last month when Javelin — an act known more for samples, sound-collage and audio pastiche — released their new record, Hi Beams (on Luaka Bop, David Byrne's eclectic, genre-busting label), they made a similar move, playing instruments and singing.
The quick-change jump-cut is part of the Javelin aesthetic though. The duo have performed at museums. Their stage show has paid homage to the idea, with a backdrop of stitched-together and disfigured boomboxes. They've made some of the collage art and silk screens that adorned their record covers. Javelin's music has always been contrast-heavy, dense with layers of obscure samples creating odd angles and unusual patterns. And in an era when appropriated sounds, super-rare samples and whiplash eclecticism are the rule, somehow Javelin has managed to remain innovative, delving into unexpected realms and unanticipated pairings. Their 2011 release Canyon Candy took old cowboy records as source material and turned the steel guitars, loping rhythms and yodeling into a kind of surreal dub patchwork, with distressed effects stretching the music into strange new shapes. It was unlike anything else.
Hi Beams doesn't excavate a focused stylistic terrain like Canyon Candy. It's a bit more wide-ranging. With soft-rock harmonies evoking 10cc or Wings, aggressively robotic vocal processing, hopped-up dance-floor beats, twinkling synths, overdriven bass lines, and ample hand-claps, crisp snare-drum patterns and perky finger-snaps, the record is equal parts high-energy pep music and serene futuristic pop. You can catch them in the early stages of their career as instrument-playing performers (they've only done about two dozen shows playing the new material) when they play The Outer Space this week.
The duo, George Langford and Tom Van Buskirk, began making music in Rhode Island in 2005. And they've bounced around to Brooklyn, with Van Buskirk moving to Los Angeles and Langford retreating to Western Massachusetts since then. We spoke with Van Buskirk recently as we was in the process of preparing to move back to New England to be near family and closer to his bandmate. ("Southern California's not really my thing, even though I'm enjoying it," he says.)
Playing the music wasn't exactly a blind leap for the guys in Javelin. Van Buskirk started playing cello when he was four. And Langford played guitar in his youth. They gravitated toward sample-heavy electronic music, because they loved it, not because they couldn't play instruments.
"We decided we wanted to be more of a live presence when we perform," says Van Buskirk. "Basically, with this album we were like 'Let's make an album that is to be performed.' We were like, 'Well I guess we have to figure out how to write some songs.'"
The band is as much about a visual and textural aesthetic as they are about sound. And lyrics have never been their first concern.
"Neither of us are very authorial when it comes to what we really want to say with language," says Van Buskirk, even though both of them were English majors in college. "We're not Bob Dylan," he adds.
But if the duo didn't feel they had much of a clear intention when it came to songwriting and lyrics, the sense of searching, of scanning the skies for something, did end up carrying through, creating its own accidental thematic continuity to the material, even if it's buried beneath the surface. As the band explains in their notes for the new record, "We chose the name Hi Beams because the songs evoke to us a sense of sky, stars, night, and warmth -- they are bright bodies of light that wave hello." And Van Buskirk says that for the song "Airfield" he had the idea of a guy who labored away in a mind-numbing job, but who spent much of his off time watching airplanes take off and land from a nearby airport. "He just sort of watches the planes all the time," says Van Buskirk. "Don't know how I'm going to escape," goes the refrain.
Escape is something Javelin's music has explored and provided in the past. The cowboy weirdness of Canyon Candy had a cinematic time-warp element to it. Some of the band's other material, like the Andean Ocean mixtape, has drawn on the the kind of quasi-ambient world of "soothing" background sounds, recorded surf and waves designed to relax people, riffing on cornball meditation instructions and the canned mellowness one might hear piped in at a massage parlor. It's ironic new age music, the relaxation undermined by the jittery beats. A chill sound with big air quotes around it.
Sticking with the theme of exotica, escape and the lure of the waves, Van Buskirk says he has an idea of the kind of sonic wormhole he might like to go down next.
"I think it would be fun to do a Hawaiian record."