Junior Violence begins with a death rattle of the most optimistic sort. Half-synthesized and half-howled, the first song on Ape School's new album sums up birth, death, and the guilt you face as you drop the needle on side A:
Did you know you fucked yourself?
Everything is on the other side of that question. Answer it and you'll wonder why you're just now fessing up. Tell your truth and the Oberheim OB-8 will cascade like a waterfall. The bass line will try to feel you up. It's all foreplay for the anthemic "Marijuana's on the Phone" and the nine tracks that follow, adding up to the second album from Ape School, the flaming sigil for a man named Michael Johnson. Junior Violence is part confession, part blitz, part hangover, and part ascension.
Over the past three years, Johnson built and demolished with equal fervor. Junior Violence was constructed version-by-version, through the controlled burns and tropical storms of experimentation, collaboration, a well-timed Eventide sponsorship, day jobs (teaching), and night jobs (playing and recording with friends War on Drugs and Kurt Vile). Part of Philadelphia's musical fabric for a decade, Johnson started life in Florida. Born into that solid-state bed of Def Leppard and Van Halen and the subsequent pan-generational cures of Jane's Addiction and Dinosaur Jr., Johnson went from building guitars out of legos and smoking joints at church talent shows into the Gainesville d.i.y
. scene and a pile of bands -- including Holopaw. Touring, joining the Sub Pop label, album-crafting with Brian Deck, and Johnson's first taste of digital recording meshed with his march toward professorship at an art school in Philadelphia. That geographic shift coincided with tourmate Sam Beam (Iron and Wine) introducing Johnson to Kurt Vile, an IDM love affair giving way to a lifelong relationship with Daedelus (who took Ape School's record to Ninja Tune after it was mixed at Rastafari studio in Brooklyn), and Johnson playing in the last audible breaths of Lilys.
The Ape School equation, worked out in real time on the I-95 corridor, is audible in Junior Violence's forty minutes. Experience, context, the skill to build a raging fire, and the confidence to toss ideas straight into the blaze drove Michael Johnson to embrace first takes, to fuck up, to play match maker between Pink Floyd and Prince, between Soft Machine and Queen, and to build a band out of geniuses. The album and live lineup features Eric Slick on drums, who joined Ape School while he was playing with Adrian Belew (King Crimson) and who went on to join Dr. Dog. Liz Boyd, Scott Churchman, Adam Ravitz, Zach Poyatt, Beachwolf, and a rotating roster of former students perform as Ape School and round out its undeniable wall of sound.
"If it sounds like it is directed to somebody else, it's probably directed at me." Johnson can tell a story for every song. "Marijuana's on the Phone", the album's lead single (out on a 7" this June), began as drunken strum into a tape recorder that was rounded out the morning after with Slick, an ARP 2600, and that swinging baritone sax. The pulsing "Carry On" was based entirely on a Ras Michael reggae beat. Electrified with Boyd's vocals, an addictive chorus, and that clear-ringing guitar line, you might catch a whiff of meaning: acute perception can be a real pain in the ass; sometimes you just want to be stupid. "Ready for Duty", a nod to Captain Beefheart, calls out the oil-filled Gulf of Mexico lapping the shores of Johnson's hometown -- a suicide note and a love letter, all at once.
Michael Johnson declared to all, "I've got sourpuss down to a science," and, indeed, Junior Violence is an acidic pop exploder. It sends bullets flying and knives thrusting, but it does so in the golden light of Summer. This album professes love in its exploration of all the parts of life that hold you back from that very pleasure. It declares passion in its obsessive care and quality, and in its respect for and exaltation of moments of trouble and chance. It's an ode to invention, to the sonic recipe that calls for everything from synth to sax. And when you think about life and all us living it, there might be no better name for it than Ape School.
-Sara Padgett Heathcott, Hometapes