For Canadian songwriter and former Sprïng front man Jo Hirabayashi, his latest musical project Jo Passed was born out of necessity. “A project like this was never supposed to happen for me,” he says. “Sprïng was falling apart… Then I started to get this really bad insomnia and it culminated in me starting Jo Passed. The second I finished one song my insomnia went away.” Initially teaming up with drummer Mac Lawrie and then later, multi-instrumentalist Bella Bébé and bassist Megan-Magdalena Bourne, Jo Passed released two EPs in 2016, Up and Out. At 42 minutes, Their Prime serves as the Vancouver outfit’s first full-length.
“Left” opens proceedings by evoking images of a necessary road trip through dreary highlands. Guitar arpeggio notes fall like rain drops onto the fields of lush orchestral string arrangements – no doubt made possible by a healthy injection of cash brought about by their recent signing to renowned label Sub Pop. Hirabayashi’s soft, understated vocals enter and guide us on our way, at times dipping into Pink Floyd territory. “We gave you everything, what’s left?” he asks in the chorus. The song takes a sharp and clever detour two-thirds of the way through. It will likely make most listeners sit up and pay closer attention to what’s on offer. Dissonant, sustained guitar tones and deep, rolling bass lines come to the fore and carry us out.
“MDM” picks up the pace somewhat, with nervy, angular electric guitar tones and a defiant post-punk attitude very much reminiscent of “M.O.R.” from Blur’s eponymous album (1997), itself undoubtedly influenced by the stellar partnership of David Bowie and Brian Eno (the band states “brian emo” [sic] as one of their genres on their Facebook page). “The songwriting was finished the day Leonard Cohen died, which was two days after Trump’s victory, so there’s a lot of that energy in the record,” explains Hirabayashi. While his vocals are soft, soaked in reverb and at times near-unintelligible when listened through run-of-the-mill speakers, it’s not to the detriment of the song, with enough raw emotion and intent expressed through the instrumentation and through the songwriter’s unpredictable song structure. “MDM” gets heavy for fleeting eight-bar sections, with a terrific bass-driven riff which could easily form the backbone of a great song in its own right. It segues nicely into “Glass”, a song which finds the guitars allowing adequate breathing room for a busy bass line which cycles through scales during its verses. The song’s opening gives the impression of the guitarist being unable to settle on a key. But the band are in absolute lockstep two and a half minutes later, delivering a thoroughly satisfying syncopated rock passage in unison.
“Undemo” is a song about supporting creativity and community, especially and specifically the local music scene. Its intricate and delicate instrumentation is delivered with perhaps a hint of influence drawn from innovative American rockers Deerhoof. “Facetook” serves as a brief lo-fi interlude, with Hirabayashi lamenting “I don’t recognise space any more,” in a repetitive, introspective style reminiscent of Elliott Smith. Whether unintentional or by design, the play on words in the track’s title and the mournful sentiment expressed in its lyrics prompt the listener to question one’s own relationship with omnipresent tech companies. In a worrying sign for us all, it’s an increasingly common theme for contemporary songwriters.
“Repair” bursts forth with newfound energy. Written on the day Trump was elected, it’s comprised mostly of two sections; one brimming full of optimism, with busy tom drums accompanying guitar arpeggios and the other comprising grey skied, defeated dream pop. As some listeners may have become accustomed to by this point of the album, the songwriter has a surprise in store for us in the form of section C – a delightfully heavy, frenetic glam-rock riff delivered in unison. “R.I.P.” returns to the intricacy heard in “Undemo”, with the instrumentation slotting together like puzzle pieces.
“Millenial Trash Blues” starts with distorted guitar noise in the left channel. What at first sounds like a generic rock riff and form, completely blind sides the listener with its complexity and unpredictability – each bar seemingly counting a different number of beats in confusing fashion. “You, Prime” comes next, with a steady beat punctuated with single guitar notes throughout, recalling the post-punk nature of some of the earlier tracks. The vocals enter at the halfway mark and only last one verse, in an otherwise straightforward instrumental featuring a satisfying chord progression.
“Sold” is another thoroughly fun yet baffling song for those trying to dance, clap or count along to it. “Another Nowhere” serves as another brief interlude, featuring guitar noise and dissonant random piano notes over what sounds like a looped, sustained synth and vocal sample. Album closer “Places Please” is perhaps the most straightforward song on the album, with simple guitar strumming falling predictably on the first and third beat in each bar. Strings enter for the final passage and bookend proceedings in a thoughtful and considered way.
Far from having passed their prime, Jo Passed prove they’re a band to watch with this highly enjoyable debut full-length album. While displaying influences proudly on his sleeves, Hirabayashi’s stellar songwriting skills are already well refined, resulting in refreshing output which rewards on repeat listens.