“We gave you everything, what’s left?” pleads the titular Jo on the opening track of Jo Passed’s debut LP Their Prime. It’s one of those questions that makes for a lot of sleepless nights, and sure enough restlessness permeates every one of the album’s 43 minutes. Like literally every other millennial keeping up with the news cycle, main songwriter Jo Hirabayashi is knee-deep in existential woes, and the music won’t let you forget it: grooves are mangled, whammy bars throttled, fretboards set ablaze. This band’s got chops, and thank goodness those chops are in service of some strongly crafted pop-rock.
Back-to-back singles “MDM” and “Glass” showcase Jo Passed’s skill in rocking out while freaking out. The former pairs strangled-cat-like guitar leads over a chord progression that would make the Pixies blush. The latter finds Hirabayashi processing his alienation from his Vancouver birthplace over a deconstructed boogie. “What’s a home?” he asks, halfway between sincere and sardonic, “Is it for grabs?” All the while, the band stops and starts on a dime, interlocking guitars hold everything steady and the bass ambles up and down the fretboard. The subject matter may be a bummer, but its delivery is thrilling.
Throughout the album there is a tension between the unconventional, sometimes abrasive song structures and Hirabayashi’s austere vocals. These prog-ish sensibilities place their sound somewhere between Tera Melos and Grizzly Bear. Short and sweet track “Facetook” wears the latter’s influence especially well, giving it a lo-fi twist. “R.I.P.” is less flattering, meandering awkwardly for its first half and not really earning its heavy, barnburner outro.
Of course, taking rock apart like this is tricky business, but when it works, oh boy, it works! Album highlight “Sold” is arguably a frontrunner for Catchiest Song in 13 / 8. The repeating bass and drum pattern that anchors the song cuts like a knife, while guitars alternate between in-your-face and coy, supporting a simple, perfect vocal line. And, contrary to “R.I.P.,” this one earns its ending, driving that angular bassline into the motorik stratosphere with a rising set of chords.
Those looking to do some close reading of the lyrics may be disappointed: Hirabayashi’s voice is so heavily processed that it’s often useless to parse the syllables through the haze. For an album that’s low-key trying to address urban living under late capitalism (the cover art is a black-and-white photo of Rize’s much-maligned condo tower in Mount Pleasant, a neat hole burnt in the centre) this is kind of a drag.
But this may be missing the point. Their Prime seeks to capture that impulse of looking for meaning in a confusing and messed-up world. They’re serious, but also seriously fun. And while their full-chops-blazing approach can be exhausting — listeners will be especially grateful for ambient comedown “Another Nowhere” — on the whole, Jo Passed succeed in bridging the gap between dense and accessible.