Humor has a tenuous place in music, and actual “jokes” have almost none at all. It’s understandable: Most songwriting places a premium on some sort of basic honesty, and asking someone “are you joking?” is usually a way to determine if they are shitting you. Honest, earnest attempts to be funny, meanwhile, usually end up with the opposite result. So this is what Awkward Pop Songs knowingly puts itself up against—its cover art and album title immediately establish its prank-punk bonafides and “JANK” itself is probably even sillier than the“Futurama” reference frontman Matt Diamond used for his previous band: Panucci’s Pizza. But in the few months since its initial release and its physical reissue, Awkward Pop Songs has lived out a lyric from another trio whose superficial goofiness was a Trojan horse for one of the most inventive, original and flat-out fun records in its realm: “Saw the cover of the tape, figured it’s pretty wack/later on eventually admitted that it’s pretty crack.”
As was the case with Das Racist, local heroes Ween, and even the Golden State Warriors, JANK’s irreverence feels like an unlocked superpower rather than a defense mechanism or compensatory measure—that they’re having this much fun with their technically astonishing chops makes their subversion of realness seem all the more amazing. Even more improbable is the number of styles in which they can operate: though the title Awkward Pop Songs is the least-clever aspect of the LP, it’s an accurate descriptor for an overview of nearly every offshoot of “revival” emo that has coalesced into the new shape of alternative rock.
There’s plenty of the arpeggiated, hammer-and-pull guitar of the dubious, American Football-fathered “twinkle” subgenre, as well as the two-handed tapping that marks its mathier offshoots. JANK can also veer towards hefty, Will Yip-approved emo–gaze and sometimes it all happens within the same song (“Caitlyn”). Diamond’s voice can elicit the instantaneous thrills of raw-throated, Midwestern emo and caffeinated pop-punk without the requisite adenoidal whine. In fact, the songs that most immediately sound like they’re crushing hard on someone turn into surrealistic stoner talk: “Caitlyn” proposes a playdate of “Katamari Damacy” and late-night TV with an imaginary dog. “Wut I Liek Abt U” cops the irrepressible, house party giddiness of Nothing Feels Good and its whimsical, quotable non-sequiturs—“And you could use a new toothbrush!;” “Tell me your favorite kind of dinosaur?”
At its peaks, Awkward Pop Songs draws a fat highlighter on the connection between emo’s fourth wave and the unconventional, genre-spanning pop of the Dismemberment Plan or the Unicorns, bands whose manic, effusive, anti-cool styles soon were subsumed by more earnest, bombastic forms of indie rock. This aspect of JANK can make Awkward Pop Songs sound damn-near necessary in 2016—if peers like Foxing, The World is a Beautiful Place & I Am No Longer Afraid to Die, and the Hotelier are stewards of the communally composed, broadly ambitious sound of mid-decade indie rock, they also have its tendency towards somber intensity.
But JANK kid because they love: the most impressive part ofAwkward Pop Songs is that it’s incredibly funny without sounding like it’s ever making fun of anyone specific. Diamond’s pop culture reference points are still cartoonish and broad—“Ouran Highschool Toast Club” tweaks the title of a popular parody of otaku culture, while “Race Car Bed” nods at an overlooked joke on the otherwise overexposed “Can I Borrow A Feeling?” episode of “The Simpsons.”
But the best laughs are musical in-jokes and some have nothing at all to do with JANK’s style of music. “Race Car Bed” also nominally “features” a non-existent, presumably #sadboy parody Yung Goth Boi and “Loading Screen” might be a subtext-free goof on the retro-futurist fetishizing of James Ferraro or PC Music. “The Hat Store” strives to be this decade’s “Combination Pizza Hut & Taco Bell;” “Spilt to Bill” shouts out the similarly untamed Island of Misfit Toysand announces, “if you don’t like Built to Spill, then I don’t fuck with you or anyone you know” while sounding like a There’s Nothing Wrong With Love cut played at 78 rpm.
The climactic moment of Awkward Pop Songs occurs when the happy hardcore of “J A N K!” crumples into a heap for no discernible reason. And then, the most legit LOL a punk record has given me in ages: a group chant of “THIS IS…A RIPOFF…OF A…TITLE…FIGHTSONG,” knicking the melody of their emo-gaze turning point “Head in the Ceiling Fan.” It doesn’t come off like a joke at the expense of punk rock’s most stoic bands, or really even the countless pop-punk acts who’ve aped it to establish a more “mature” sound. It’s more of a simple “if if feel good, do it” moment. Or, an acknowledgment that even if it’s only four years old, that’s a watershed classic, and thus, public domain. It’s the same kind of open-ended communication and crowd participation that constantly pops up in hip-hop and pop music. Rather than shy away from people claiming their fans are“meme loving Tumblr kids,” JANK say, “we are too.” Is it any wonder that JANK can basically be their own backing band at shows these days?