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.
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…”