Javelin is an experimental lo-fi dance beat production duo, consisting of cousins George Langford and Tom Van Buskirk, and is one of the most predictably hot-and-cold acts in the world of musical collages in recent memory. Their music plays like 1970’s FM stations on a Friday afternoon on a Southern Cali beach, and in 2009 they received recognition for their sunny minimalist dance track “Vibrationz” by the likes of Pitchfork and other blogosphere heavy weights. They have pushed their own boundary a time or two including their surprisingly fresh and textured album & art installation Canyon Candy which was made almost entirely of sounds recalling frontier era American West (The tracks “Fievel Goes West” and “Cowpoke” are superbly textured, sepia toned tracks that are unlike most anything any beatmakers produce in the world). However, they have yet to reach a level of musical taste that would allow their records to play straight through with as much assertiveness and consistent personality as their awesome sampling skills allow.
Hi Beam, their most recent release on Luaka Bop, immediately registers as a departure from their old formula insofar as vocals are clearly the thrust of this album. They’re taking the jump from quirky beat makers to full fledged songwriters, somewhere in between surf pop, early hip-hop, and traditional dance songwriting. Unfortunately this album, for all its moments of infectious finger snapping, suffers a case of serious inconsistency that stems from continued difficulties with poor taste for what makes truly compelling music and what’s mere silliness.
Some moments do stand out in this new artistic focus: the last minute of “l’Ocean” has a great vocal harmony layering with a floating major key synth line. The album opens with “Light Out” which has a nice propulsive cello line and finishes on a strong bass line crescendo with airy synth keys behind the melody. “City Pals” has an endearing nostalgic feel to it with vocals in a faux Beach Boys vein that seems to hold its own including a segment of simple piano and vocals, a rare moment in which the vocals carry the track’s emotional momentum all on their own. The album closer “The Stars” have this really excellent vocal duet where they’re singing in perfect fifths at times and has a very moving chord progression that works out great until all of a sudden the album is over at just over 31 minutes and the listener is left still waiting for the punchline.
“Judgement Nite” has this unsettling and embarrassing machismo guitar line that sounds straight out of a Rocky flick which sounds like high schoolers put it together for some 80’s mockumentary and is exemplar of the extraneous cheesiness inherent in this record, that serves to reduce the artistic credit they seem to be striving for in some of the more admirable points in the record. There is evidence their efforts are aimed at establishing themselves as more artistically credible beatmakers – notice the decision to release “Nnormal” as the primary single for the record – with its nocturnal fingers snaps, hand claps, and sinister sounding bassnline and some interesting movements with the time. This is ambitious to boot, even if it’s got some hiccups with cowbells and synth melodies that flatten the feel of the track.
“Airfield” is the album’s best and most consistent track. What sets it apart isn’t that it has great sounds, most of the tracks have great sounds, but that the writing has enough depth to keep the sounds deep enough for an entrancing listen. The groove at the end shimmers like an explosion inside an arcade with pin balls bouncing all over the place. It’s a shame really that the momentum comes to a sudden thud with “Friending” in which one finds a common bad habit throughout this record: relying on underdeveloped or, frankly, boring synth beats and not enough of a melting pot of sounds to keep it going. The sparser moments of this record just. don’t.. do… enough…. to……. keep……….. your…………… attenti – shit, gotta feed the dog. Do taxes. Maybe check out Bed, Bath, and Beyond if there’s enough time. Perhaps if the drum machine beats were a little more compelling, or they employed a stronger bass line sensibility in each successive track there wouldn’t be so many peaks and troughs in the record. Their vocal melodies lack substance in some tracks which would have been sustained with a richer low end, but it would appear that despite their years of culling richly texture lo-fi FM timbres they’re in a bit of a bind as to how they could enliven vocal melodies that just don’t always hook like they should.
Understand, it’s not to say there aren’t moments of great vocals. Frankly, there are plenty to be found in the above tracks listed in which they have a slightly more robust production effort. Their intonation is great, the lyricism is enjoyable enough. In fact, if you took away their samplers, they might be apt enough songwriters for a decent indie dance record without meddling up their message with continued sampling efforts.
This album is an awkward transition between two different approaches to music making. They move partly away from their signature creative process of culling cutely accessible lo-fi sounds that work together as feel good collages and partly towards a novel identity as a songwriting indie dance band. They don’t embrace either role in this album, it seems like they’re wearing clothes that just don’t fit right. That said, plenty of groups have released great stuff on either side of an awkward record. The high points of this record display their talent. If their taste can catch up they might end up releasing some unique dance collages in the future but they have to be willing to step more into the role for the job and forgive some of their jokey tendencies. If they can bring some more maturity to their records as a whole and rattle off a couple more tracks like “Airfield” and “Nnormal” they could have something resembling an enduring record on their hands. Unfortunately this record, like most of their previous efforts, is best perused once or twice for a couple tracks to throw on a summertime mix-tape and left to be forgotten.
Written by Case Newsom