Japan Van Damme started between 2013-14 when longtime friends Lorren Schweppe (guitar) and Erik Shaw (guitar) reconnected after a few years apart. Each had been cutting their teeth with Shaw playing in various outfits around Minneapolis, while Schweppe was a ‘hired gun’ playing in New York City. While both were between projects, it was the perfect time to finally consolidate and showcase their songwriting and progressive guitar playing styles. Two cases of Hamm's and a backyard boxing match later, “the bond was blood and the brotherhood was born” as they say. Years later, veteran musician Jess Skadburg (drums) joined, while Andrew Roman (bass) strutted into the mix with rich enthusiasm and experience, catapulting the group into a new level. Japan Van Damme has a dynamic, original sound that stands on its own. While incorporating various influences of classic, alternative, blues, pop and southern rock, the group has been compared to Big Star on the Bob Cesca podcast show calling them “the reincarnation of the former group.” Their latest full-length album Normal Style, was recorded, mixed,and mastered at Winterland Studios in New Hope, Minnesota with engineer and good friend Josh Levi.
To kick things off, “Thirty Day Notice” has got the spirit of post-punk rock in a fresh alternative way. This song has got a live and well produced sound. “New York City Eats Its Young” seems spot on to me with the stories I’ve heard. This one features some great power chords and a rock pop melody with just a touch of twang. Kind of reminds me a bit of the rock-twang that The Replacements did several years ago, or should I say, decades ago. Damn, I feel old.
“Take Energy Park Drive” has a gritty guitar lick and a mean bass line. This one’s pretty catchy. Next is “There She Goes” and it feels like it would be a good contender for the radio or to put out as a single. Some fantastic singing, too. “Cobaine” has got one hell of an infectious guitar riff and shows the band’s hard rock side. I kind of liken this one to a mix of Alice in Chains, KISS and perhaps a few others in there as well. “Seven Day Weekend” has got a more classic, softer side – I can hear some of the Big Star influence for sure. “Two Weeks Prior” begins with a cool start, sort of jazzy, sort of classic rock from the ‘70s, but then it gets heavier and louder.
“Still in Spades” features spacious guitar riffs and a few awesome lead guitar solos. I liked how the drums weaved in and out between verse and chorus. This one had a bluesy edge to it and packs a lot of attitude. However, as the shortest song on the album, it felt like it should have been longer. It seemed like it was over before it begun. Moving on with a southern fried rock sound is “Blackout Boys” – a song about beer and “hitting on someone else.” I think this one would be a favorite for the regulars at the local watering hole.
“Still Lucky” finally throws a wrench in the operation. This is clearly the love ballad of the album. I thought the band’s change in tempo and arrangements were quite unique, making for a dynamic tune. And the piano is just what this song needed – nice touch! “Now She’s Gone” showcases a little southern rock with the classic, while “The Ballad of Billy Badass” taps into some country-rock vibes. Lyrically, it sounds like the quintessential country song, just made for sitting under a starry sky with your mate and a six-pack. The last tune is “Dead Man’s Son.” This one begins with a quieter sound and then builds up during the chorus parts. Overall, a modern alternative sound fastened on the shoulders of bands like Big Star and Wilco.
All in all, there were a number of highlights. This is a cohesive album from start to finish. Take a listen.
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