Monthly Archives: December 2011

Great pop music denied to Japan in 2011: Kara’s Step

While I was putting together my gleefully self-indulgent 2011 Top 10 girly bubblegum pop tunes list, there was one song that I didn’t include but perhaps should have. It was by probably the most successful Korean group in Japan at the moment, who had a string of Number 1 hit singles and two albums in Oricon’s end of year charts. All of which, needless to say, were utter crap.

That group was Kara, who are notable as the Korean group who have gone furthest to ingratiate themselves into the Japanese way of doing things, by throwing out everything that made them refreshing and exotic in the first place and trading it all for some thinly produced, sub-AKB48 J-pop-by-numbers and a pointless TV show. Kara are a case study that can be held up to the bleating fanboy crowd exemplifying the poisonous influence Yasushi Akimoto and AKB48 exert over the Japanese pop market. With their beyond-cynical multiple-purchase marketing model, their blanket coverage across all possible media, and their relentless goose step down the Champs Elysee of the singles charts, they hold themselves up as the definitive example of “what-Japanese-like” and as a model of “how-things-should-be-done”.

That groups like Kara are buying into this notion of bland, lobotomised antimusic as their pathway to success in Japan doesn’t bode well for the future direction of pop music in this country. That Kara’s dreadful Super Girl album outsold fellow Korean invaders Girls’ Generation’s far more forward-thinking self-titled album (on first week sales at least) raises the danger that this approach might in the future become a standard approach to the Japanese market.

The truth is probably that it doesn’t much matter in terms of sales what kind of music a group makes. Kara have been in the Japanese market for longer than Girls’ Generation and comparing their second album to Girls’ Generation’s first is to compare groups at different stages of their initial growth. The structure of the market is such that the future of both groups in Japan will depend more on how much money and effort goes into promotion than on what kind of music they make, which makes DSP Media’s decision to go the full AKB on Kara’s music pointless as well as musically reprehensible.

To drive this home and to make clear the contempt in which DSP clearly hold the average Japanese listener’s taste, Kara also released a Korean language album this year which included possibly the group’s best song, Step:

It didn’t make my list because Japanese audiences were denied it (unless they bought the limited edition of Super Girl or, as thousands did, imported the Korean album), but it was one of the pop songs of the year, with its aggressively energetic 80s synths, la-la-las and shiny, glittery everything-on-max production. If I were Japanese, I think I’d be pissed off with DSP Media that they have such a low opinion of my taste, and perhaps a little ashamed at my country’s pop establishment for having given them that impression.

(Oh, and just in case you think I’m laying it on thick with the girl groups here, I’d also have picked GD & TOP’s “Knock Out” as one of my songs of the year, but apparently Japan isn’t ready for so much swag yet.)

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New band recommendations for 2012

Another short piece I had in today’s Japan Times was a list of five bands I recommend for 2012. A couple of them have been around for a while (since 2010) but none of them have releases other than their own self-produced CD/Rs yet, and I think they still count as freshmen by Japanese indie standards.

Hysteric PicnicA band I discovered quite recently and who hit all my new wave buttons. Heavily influenced by Joy Division, but the drum machine and some of the guitar parts remind me of Young Marble Giants too.

Buddy Girl and MechanicPsychedelic kraut-blues. Love them.

otoriThese guys have played at my events a few times and they always rip it up. They’re still growing and building a catalogue of songs, but they’re already pretty hot.

Pop OfficeOne of the hottest new Nagoya bands. I’ve written about them here.

Kobayashi DororiI put this band in to sort of represent everything in Kumamoto, which is basically impossible because there’s such a variety of different kinds of music there. I really liked their CD though: quirky, entertaining, interesting musically, mixing pop and postpunk in a fun, accessible way. And yeah, the guitarist drew an erotic manga about the album.

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Strange Boutique (December 2012)

Here’s my Japan Times end-of-year roundup column. I’ve not much to add really other than that AKB48 are really the worst thing ever. I do think it’s worth mentioning (and this is my view, not that of the japan Times editorial section) that I really don’t think SMAP’s charity and fundraising work gives them license to use the Tohoku tragedy as a marketing hook off which to hang their new Greatest Hits album that they rushed out in time for their Beijing trip. Giving 5% off the sale price to charity is a fine gesture, but calling the album SMAP Aid, with that cutesy sticking plaster logo, is just cashing in on tragedy and they should be called out on it.

At the bottom of the article, there’s also a little box where I give my top five girl-group bubblegum pop tunes of the year. I’ve already posted one or two of the clips, so sorry for any repetition. Anyway, if you want to check them out, here they are:

1. Perfume: Laser BeamI’ve written about this extensively before, so I’ll just add here that I agree with Patrick from Make Believe Melodies that the single mix is better than the over-fussy album mix.

2. Kyary Pamyu Pamyu: PonponponAgain, not much to say about this other than that it’s magnificently stupid, even without the video.

3. Girls’ Generation: Mr. TaxiThis is actually good for a lot of the same reasons as Ponponpon (i.e. the chorus is simple, catchy and features just them doing a silly dance and repeating the same couple of nonsense sounds over and over again), but it’s also  important for bringing a bit of modern electro polish, sex and glamour into the Japanese pop scene.

4. 2NE1: I Am the BestTotally stupid, but really quite musically radical when you pull it apart. 2NE1 are by far the most fun group out of the 2011 K-pop pack.

5. Momoiro Clover: Mirai BowlAnother let’s-chuck-everything-in-and-see-what-happens song. On its own, I don’t think I’d like any individual part of this song, but the way all these completely incompatible musical segments are chucked together makes it so much more than the sum of its constituents. Add in the cheesy theatrical drama section that goes with it and you have a minor idol pop-opera masterpiece. Also the last thing they did with the beautiful Akari Hayami (a.k.a. “Blue”) still in the group (chokes back sobs).

If I were to add some more, I’d say:

6. Seifuku Kojo Iinkai: Da! Da! Datsu genpatsu no Uta — Nothing special about the tune, but idol pop with an angry anti-nuclear message in 2011? Hell yeah.

7. Secret: Shy Boy — Infectiously happy pop tune that isn’t quite sure whether it’s trying to be a 50s doo-wop tune or a 60s bubblegum-Motown pastiche, and then remembers it’s a K-pop song and shoves in an absurdly incongruous rap segment. Wonder Girls pulled the same trick on Be My Baby, but they over-egged the production a bit so I’ll go for this bouncy number instead.

8. Nozomi Sasaki: Pa-pe-pi-pu Pa-pe-pi-pu Pa-pe-pi-pu-po — Ridiculously annoying, stupidly catchy, gleefully, calculatedly nonsensical, Sasaki’s terrible singing voice gives it an air of almost punky couldn’t-give-a-fuckery, and those wonderfully cheap 80s synths just get me every time. Awful song. I love it.

9. Afterschool: Let’s Step Up — Not really a proper song so much as an album intro, but tapdancing electropop? The little Riverdance thing they do in the middle? Someone has clearly decided somewhere that the rules of pop don’t apply to them, and if there’s one thing that 2011 proved, it’s that whatever we thought the rules were, they’re not.

10. Momoiro Clover Z: Rodo Sanka — Showa Era nostalgia abounds in this worker’s anthem, written by Ian Parton of The Go! Team. After Girls’ Generation made an album almost entirely full of songs by Western songwriters, it’s interesting to see a Japanese idol group go the same path and come up with something completely different but no less striking. And yeah, I know I had another song by basically the same group earlier — so I cheated.

There are probably a few other’s I could put in — T-ara had one or two good songs, and 2NE1 and Perfume both had one or two more really good songs — but I’ll leave it at a clear ten.

[Edit: Added in Secret at No.7. and Nozomi Sasaki at No.8. Can’t believe I forgot such an adorable pair of little tunes.]

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Classic Pop Corner — Saori Minami/Chisato Moritaka: 17-sai

It’s a bit of a recurring theme from me that mainstream pop in Japan peaked in the 1970s and never really recovered that sense of melodic depth, economy and vitality. This song, 17-sai (“Seventeen years old”) is an interesting one in that it brackets what we might call the “kayoukyoku era” with two quite distinct versions.

The first was by the Okinawan singer Saori Minami, so let’s have a listen to her version here now:

Saori Minami: 17-sai

It represents an interesting period in Japanese pop, where Japanese songwriters were beginning to mutate the influence of Western pop into something different. As Minami’s first single (released in 1971), it’s also significant as possibly the first piece of Japanese idol pop ever, and at the heart of that lies a conflict of sorts too. Minami herself never had any desire to be an idol, preferring to avoid overt cutesiness, and her songwriting team generally understood this, tailoring her songs to appeal to Minami’s own sense of what she wanted to do as best they could within the constraints of what her agency, the notorious Burning Production, would allow. In this case, songwriter Kyohei Tsutsumi wrote the song with the image of American country singer Lynn Anderson’s (I Never Promised You A) Rose Garden in his head after Minami praised the song in their initial meeting.

The resulting song comes in at a bit under three minutes, which is how long a pop tune should be, and while it’s far from Minami’s finest work, it’s a charming little pop tune with a memorable melodic hook.

Now we’re going to jump forward to 1989, at the death of the idol era, where the song was reworked and covered by Chisato Moritaka. Let’s have a listen to her version now:

Chisato Moritaka: 17-sai

Moritaka comes across as an aggressive pastiche of an idol singer in this song with her lower half all ridiculous puffy dress and proto-K-pop legs that go on for miles, and then her top half an exaggerated parody of a late 80s power suit. The music matches this, taking Tsutsumi’s melody, working it into a New Order/Vince Clarke-influenced synthpop disco track and stretching it out to just short of five minutes.

Because the truth of the matter was that idols were dead in 1989, and Moritaka was never really meant to be an idol. She existed in a strange sort of limbo between the end of kayoukyoku in the late 80s and the birth of J-pop in the early 90s. There was a demand from audiences for something more grown-up, which the labels and talent agencies were just waking up to, but they were unsure of how to go about delivering it.

In the end, they looked abroad, primarily it seems to Europe. Moritaka’s contemporaries, the idol duo Wink, had hits covering Kylie Minogue’s Turn it into Love (as Ai ga Tomaranai) and Slovenian synthpop group Moulin Rouge’s Boys Don’t Cry (as Namida wo Misenaide), and it was the nascent Avex Trax label with its importing of Eurobeat records and the sound’s subsequent adoption by producer Tetsuya Komuro that eventually gave birth the the J-pop sound that defined the 1990s, and which groups like AKB48 have never fully forgotten.

While Wink fell by the wayside, Moritaka went on to lose the disco and make the transition into a successful mainstream pop artist throughout the 90s, but this curious hybrid of classic 70s pop and almost-modern European disco-synthpop is a curious period in the history of Japanese pop.

Now the reason this is significant, is that I think at the moment, the popularity of Korean pop in Japan at the moment  represents a similar period of transition, or at least the potential for one. The fact that people are becoming enthused over something from overseas should be a warning sign to domestic producers that audiences think they’ve become stale. Arguing that this is simply a case of companies shoving K-pop down people’s throats misses the point. Japanese talent agencies tried their best to shut out Korean music, with Johnny & Associates threatening to pull their artists from any TV shows that presented Korean boy bands at one point, but people kept buying them. Korean artists were selling comparable numbers to Japanese groups on import alone, and little shops in the Korean district of Shin-Okubo were making crazy sales just as HMV were sliding into bankruptcy. Japanese talent agencies had to join up with their Korean counterparts to sell this stuff.

The problem is that since Kylie Minogue never bothered to learn Japanese or tour extensively here, Japanese versions of her songs, or at least some equivalent sound by Japanese artists, became a necessity. Korean groups are self-contained, they contain at least one or two fluent Japanese speakers among the group, and they are happy to re-record their back catalogue in Japanese. So what’s there for Japanese artists to do?

The answer has to be to recognise that K-pop offers something different and attractive to Japanese audiences, but to make something different. To synthesise that sound and mutate it, as Kyohei Tsutsumi did in 1971, and as Chisato Moritaka’s people did in reverse in 1989, to make something that can push Japanese pop forward in a new direction.

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Perfume: JPN

CD, Tokuma (2011)

This Japan Times review of idol trio Perfume’s latest album proved a bit controversial, with some J-pop fans angry at me for comparing them to Girls’ Generation, which seemed like a reasonable comparison to make since both groups released electropop-influenced albums in the same market in the same year, with broadly similar first week sales (Girls’ Generation sold a few tens of thousands more I think, but both comfortably cracked 200,000 units sold in their first week).

Other fans were angry at me for the heinous crime of not being “objective”. For their benefit, I took the liberty of providing them with a handy fill-in-the-gaps objective music review that they can use for future releases. Another guy was upset because I treated the album as if producer Yasutaka Nakata was the only important thing about it and didn’t give credit to the talents of the girls themselves, who he believed were being stifled by their parasitical producer.

Anyway, suffice to say I don’t think JPN is all that great, although that said, it’s still better than any other Japanese album that sold more than 200,000 copies in its first week in 2011.

Perfume: Natural ni Koishite

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Friends: Let’s Get Together Again

Vinyl, Second Royal (2011)

This review originally appeared in Japanese on Goblin.mu.

Having secured their claim as home to Japan’s answer to chillwave with last year’s Hotel Mexico album “His Jewelled Letter Box”, Kyoto’s Second Royal Records seem intent on staking out ground in every indie buzz genre with the lo-fi beach pop of indie power trio Friends, currently available to hear online as it awaits a vinyl release later this autumn.

The music is basically feelgood, summery 1960s pop of the sort that was the stock in trade of The Beach Boys and any number of girl groups of that period. However, the sweet melodies exist in a constant state of tension with the fuzz-drenched lo-fi production. Sometimes, as on closing number “Cruel Sea”, the melody is almost drowned by it, while songs like “When I’m Asleep”, singer Shota Kaneko’s voice reaching the listener like distant echoes from the back of a cave, sound like the work of some kind of half-decomposed zombie Phil Spector, and one suspects that’s the point.

Friends: Good For Us

The Jesus and Mary Chain pulled off a similar trick in the early 1980s, with tunes recalling the innocence of classic rock & roll which the band brutally attacked with chainsaw feedback, reflecting the relocation of the music from the sunny Californian shores of the 60s to rainswept, economically depressed Thatcher-era Glasgow. The band’s obviously deep love and enormous respect for the likes of The Shangri-las was set against a postpunk rage that needed to tear at the heart of rock & roll (not to mention a hero-worshipping relationship with The Velvet Underground).

With Friends, however, the lo-fi production feels less frought with ambivalence, as if the band are paying tribute in equal parts to 60s America and 80s Britain, not to mention absorbing the atmosphere of any number of contemporary international indiepop artists. Rather than taking a chainsaw to rock & roll, they are carefully crafting an identity out of its history.

And identity is at the core of what this kind of music is about. Bands like Friends, from the hug-me band name, down through the gorgeous, nostalgic melodies, to the amateurish production are all about making their audience feel comfortable and at home. The feedback and fuzz here comes neither out of necessity (it’s not that difficult to record a relatively clean, clear sounding album nowadays) nor desire to lash out, but rather functions like an Instagram photo filter, marking out the band’s indie subcultural position, and providing a sonic identifier for fans already inclined to listen to such music. “Listen to this,” it says, “We are one of you.” That said, they went a bit too far with it — at several points it becomes difficult to actually hear what is going on, which is a shame considering how pretty the songs here are

Part of what this means is that a band like Friends will never be as important as the pioneering artists in whose footsteps they follow; however, the good thing is that of course lo-fi recording of this type really does sound incredibly cool, especially when combined with tunes as classically beautiful as “I Think I Love You” and “Good For Us”. The lyrics, where they emerge from behind the squalls of distortion, seem for the most part simple, unrefined declarations of feelings, unpolluted by the fashionista posing of similar-sounding bands like The Raveonettes, and all the more appealing for that. Finally, the way the band rattle their way through these ten short, sharp, tightly focussed melodies in just over twenty-five minutes gives the whole album a genuinely intimate, analogue feeling, as if the band had just knocked out the whole thing in a mid-sixties American suburban garage on a Sunday afternoon.

What that says about life in a digitally-connected Japanese urban metropolis in 2011 is another question, but the answer probably begins with the words, “Wouldn’t it be nice…”

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Feature: Nagoya music scene

A couple of pieces from the Japan Times about the music scene in Nagoya and the general Aichi area here. The first one is an overview of the Nagoya music scene, focussing in particular on the role of the city’s independent record shops in developing and supporting bands, as well as keeping the scene up to date with new music from elsewhere. I spoke to Takehiko Yamada of the record shop File-Under records and the label Knew Noise to get some insight into the scene, so the piece also includes parts of an interview I carried out with him.

The second, shorter piece, picks out a few local bands from a variety of genres. I also did a similar pair of features on Fukuoka about the same time the previous year, so check them out here and here.

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