One wants a single to remember summer by.
Back when there was Top 40 radio, individual songs, not albums, were that medium’s currency. When kids were out of school for summer and could listen to radio all the time, those individual songs became fraught with personal significance. By the time summer was over, there would be at least one such that captured the season’s zeitgeist, if you will, and why wouldn’t you? In recent years, Katy Perry, Black Eyed Peas and Rihanna have governed the summer party, but in olden times, there were undeniable feats of audio magic from people like Eddie Cochran, Chubby Checker, and Martha with her Vandellas to summon the spirit of the season.
Sometimes the song of summer is fizzy and carefree, like “Party Rock Anthem” or “Hot in Herre.” Sometimes its lyrics overwhelm, like “Dancing in the Dark” or “Kiss from a Rose.” Sometimes it needs no words at all, like “Green Onions” or “Grazing in the Grass.”
This summer, you could make a good case for “Call Me Maybe” stamping the summer, though our friend Roger Duvall says north of here, it’s all Gotye all the time. I’d like to propose a stronger brew. For 2012, put me down for a song out of nowhere, “The House That Heaven Built” by Japandroids.
Japandroids is two Occidental guys, Brian King and David Prowse, from Vancouver. As with The White Stripes and The Black Keys, Japandroids is a guitar-drums duo, and as with the aforementioned, they find interesting ways to fill the sonic space left by the absence of a bass.
Their story is rock writ small: King and Prowse got together in 2006 because they liked the same music and wanted to play it together. They lacked any virtuosity on their respective instruments (King is the plucker and Prowse the hammer) and, as King wrote in the band bio, “fought tirelessly against their own creative limitations.” They put some EPs out, but by the time they persuaded a real label to issue a debut CD (Post-Nothing in 2009), they thought their efforts fruitless and had decided to quit playing as a band.
To their surprise, the CD caught on and propelled Japandroids out into and around the world for two years. “Tour was the fire to which they fed themselves,” says the bio. They had no intention of creating a second album, but curiosity brought the pair to Nashville. As King explained to Pitchfork, “We just need to record in order to play more shows.”
What they came up with was a masterpiece of garage, with the perfect Kay-Tel Records title, Celebration Rock. All eight songs are worth your time, but I call your attention to “The House That Heaven Built” as a song of demolition and redemption.
It starts with feedback looming up out of the distance, and then King starts strumming like the pistons of an old muscle car. There is backfire, or maybe a backbeat as King sets an apocalyptic tableau:
When the soul of the city was laid to rest
And the nights forgotten and left for dead
A heavenly choir manifests, or more likely a gaggle of bodies scattered around the floor of a barrelhouse, shouting, “Oh oh oh oh oh oh oh oh,” and they scare Prowse into a tempo, drumming for his life at the speed of a headless horseman.
I happened on a house built of living light
Where everything evil disappears and dies
The choir, almost mocking his discovery with their Ohs, is rebuked by King’s chorus:
When they love you, and they will
Tell ‘em all they’ll love in my shadow
And if they try to slow you down
Tell them all to go to hell
Here is epistemology with a kiss of the hops. The guitar downshifts, turns a corner. The singer finds himself in a place Judas Priest showed to Frankie Lee a long time ago:
I settled in slowly to this house that you call home
To blood and breath, fear, flesh and bone
Rush of our bodies in the heat of the night
All day the day after, red in the skies
King is at the top of his vocal range, trying to elude the choir and the demands of his own chorus, his vowels skidding like tires on Dead Man’s Curve, and as he accelerates again, his guitar starts redlining, Prowse’s kit threatening to crack the block. You might hear Buck Dharma or Slash, you might hear Eddie Cochrane and his summertime blues. The band is looking for escape velocity. It crashes through a fence at the top of the bluff, and in the rushing air of a chord ringing out, the epiphany that every summer’s ending delivers:
It’s a lifeless life with no fixed address to give
But you’re not mine to die for anymore, so I must live
The drummer tries to start the engine as the song plunges toward earth, and as it turns over and the chords rise anew, the singer, like the devil in the old Stones samba, introduces himself:
Born of a bottle from heaven’s hand
And now you know. And here. I. Am.
The Ohs are shouts of recognition now, and as the chorus turns upon itself, the guitar layers like contrails as the song soars out of sight, zooming away not with a sonic boom but with a chord that should crack all the glass in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
There is a venerable polarity ‘twixt heaven and hell in this amazing track from this substantial album, but also the less-traveled terrain between possibility and futility, between adolescence and apotheosis. You might not get that from reading these words, but you might if you listen to that song.
Thanks to the geniuses at the Bottletree, Japandroids will be here in November. Summer will be long gone by then, at least until they play “The House That Heaven Built.”
Courtney Haden is a Weld columnist. Send your feedback to email@example.com.