My Japan Times column this month follows up on some ideas from Daniel Robson’s Perfume interview in the same paper the other week, looking at how they might go about making a mark overseas. I primarily talk about the marketing rather than the music in this one, although I don’t think there’s anything in their sound that would necessarily cause them problems. It’s distinctive, which could see them bracketed as “too weird” by some particularly musically unadventurous listeners, but on balance, it’s probably probably a good thing. They have a lot of repetition in the choruses, which might help them overcome the language barrier, at least partially, and even their less striking recent stuff is still pretty sound pop music.
In the article, where I drop the phrase “cyborgs-on-the-verge-of-a-nervous-breakdown”, I was thinking of the last few minutes of this live clip, which is still one of my favourite pieces of J-pop ever. I think that in years to come, when people look back on now with the rose-tinted filter of history, it’s this that they’ll pick up on, not musical pink slime like Exile:
As I say, I think there’s a lot to be positive about, but a lot will depend on what tie-ups they get with overseas promoters and media. What they’ve done so far (making the music available to download via iTunes) is the bare minimum of what every pop group in the world should be doing. That it seems remarkable just shows how backwards the Japanese music industry is. It’s worth noting that Yasutaka Nakata’s other production project, Kyary Pamyu Pamyu, seems to be doing OK, although the obvious caveats regarding YouTube hits vs. actual sales apply, through taking a more (visually at least) offbeat tack, which seems to support my thesis that niche marketing is the best way to make J-pop work. Kyary’s fashion connection ties her into an interest group outside of the usual Japanophile crowd (and really, the existing overseas J-pop fan community is probably something any sane label will want to keep at arm’s length) but she’s striking and exotic enough that she stands out. Perfume have a strong image, but their niche is less clear, and I think it will take a while for them to find it. The pop-cyborg thing is cool, but it’s hard to know what it ties into. For example, stick them in a sci-fi film as some futuristic pop group and they’ll get lots of the comics/SF crowd thinking it’s cool, but at the same time, it’s also a kind of self-satire, which means the audience won’t necessarily transfer thinking “it’s cool” to thinking “they’re cool”. I think children should probably be the primary focus, because they’re less hung up on stuff like that, but make sure whatever you do with them is cool enough that an older crowd can convince themselves that they’re getting into it in a sort of hipster ironic way.
I’m just going to cut the preamble here and say that some stuff just hits your button and that for me this is it. This track by Japanese electronic musician/DJ Juan Hasegawa is Michael Bundt’s La Chasse Aux Microbes colliding with, I don’t know, let’s say Liaisons Dangerouses’ Los Niños Del Parque in a glorious, minimalist eight-minute Teutonic synthgasm. It’s a shamelessly 70s/80s sound (in particular one with strong echoes of late 70s krautrock experiments and early 80s NDW/EBM), but unlike so many bands that borrow from the past, this is a sound that still sounds so futuristic that it might as well be from the year 3014. The squelchy sequencer bass throbs away like a production line in a factory producing cyborg brain implants while a limping android percussion clanks by in the background. In the meantime the synths swoop by like elegant aircars, the serenity of which contrasts with and imbues with neon beauty the distorted sounds of someone idly channel-surfing through a sentient computer’s nightmares. Electronic music at its most utopian.
This is just one of the most deliriously fun and silly things out there. And About Hers play a kind of shambolic guitar pop that has nothing to do with painstaking recreation of 1980s British indie, precious little to do with 1990s Japanese post-Flipper’s Guitar pop, but a great deal to do with an irrepressible party atmosphere and a cheerful disregard for their own musical limitations wrapped wround an instinctive ear for a simple, catchy melody and a disarmingly sophisticated arrangement. Main vocalist Aoi’s clumsy, rambling monologues contrast with a euphoric chorus in which all four members chip in, the whole thing interspersed with nonsensical musical and vocal interjections that jump out at you from such unexpected angles that you can’t help by grin madly to yourself. Ace trumpet solo too.
Also, a quick note on the video, which is every bit as fun and silly as the song, with fact that it’s clearly been filmed on a thoroughly grey, windy, miserable day somehow accentuating the unflappable devotion to fun that the band radiate. Yes, they all look as if they’re about twelve years old (they’re not), but there’s also a maturity, self-awareness and confidence about this that brings the audience in on the whole game without ever descending into irony. A soundtrack to parties on the beach or a pick-me-up for a rainy afternoon, Bali Song is as pure and sincere a bundle of smiles as you could wish for.
This review is something I wrote a few months ago for someone else but which never got published. Obviously the song’s been around for ages and I think some of the ideas I talk about here are pretty well-worn now so apologies for repetition and feel free to ignore. I doubt I’d be able to summon the same enthusiasm for it if I were writing this now, although I stand by what i wrote in general terms.
Momoiro Clover Z are the idol group that it’s OK for indie and experimental music fans to not only like, but actually to get completely dizzy with excitement over. Mouretsu Uchuu Koukyoukyoku Dainana Gakushou “Mugen no Ai” may be the theme song to yet another self-referential comedy anime about cute girls, but it also represents an interesting case of a subcultural pop culture artefact that is teetering on the brink of surprisingly wide ranging acceptance having played more or less on its own terms.
Part of the key to Momoiro Clover Z’s popularity is that they succeed in their fundamental capacity as idols. The group themselves are brimming with character, and producer Hyadain’s music helps to not only bring this out but to amplify it. The asides and snatches of dialogue that pepper the song are monumentally silly, but delivered perfectly straight-faced, which is important in ensuring that the audience understands that the group are laughing with them rather than at them. The fans can at least feel that they and the group are on the same trip here.
While they push a lot of otaku buttons, the group are no vulnerable “little sister” types needing a big brother figure to protect and comfort them. Instead, they take their cues from the more combative theatrics of pro wrestling and tokusatsu action serials. Momoiro Clover Z are all about chasing each moment with hearts aflame and grasping them with both hands, because moments are precious and pass in the blink of an eye and other such semi-sincerely meant cliches. The songwriting formula that producer Hyadain employs for Momoiro Clover Z’s music is perfectly tailored to this philosophy, bombarding the listener with a barrage of frantic beats, hysterical, wailing 80s guitar solos (courtesy here of the ubiquitous Marty Friedman), scattershot call-and-response vocals, and arrangements that barrel chaotically from one melodic and rhythmical segment to another like a hyperactive child channel-surfing between a dozen TV stations composed entirely of 1980s Saturday morning cartoons played at double speed. At any given moment, the song is pummeling you with a surging chorus or soaring guitar solo, but then just as suddenly as it arrived, it’s gone and the next, equally melodramatic, moment leaps in to replace it.
It’s a style that anime fans will be familiar with from all manner otaku-oriented music, but it also shares a kind of anarchic energy with the avant-garde song construction of 1970s progressive rock and the excitable, cut-and-paste style of some post-Shibuya-kei artists like Eel and Plus-tech Squeeze Box (both of whom are Japanese labelmates of The Go! Team, whose member Ian Parton produced recent Momoiro Clover Z single Roudou Sanka), which perhaps explains part of how the group have been able to appeal so strongly to so many in the indie and experimental community.
The single also features Lost Child, written by Narasaki of thrash/shoegaze/metal band Coaltar of the Deepers, which takes Momoiro Clover Z in an even more interesting direction, wisely not attempting to replicate the Hyadain formula in its entirety but instead weaving distorted vocals and cosmic synth effects around a skittering 1990s electronic beat. Taken together, the two tracks showcase a group on the brink of massive success but still making thrillingly silly and deliciously fun music.
And this is what makes Momoiro Clover Z such an important group in the current wave of Japanese idol music. Whereas the likes of AKB48 have crossed over from idol subculture into the mainstream through a combination of sheer force of numbers and steadfastly unchallenging music, and Perfume were never really idols in the term’s fullest sense to begin with, on the evidence of Mouretsu Uchuu Koukyoukyoku Dainana Gakushou “Mugen no Ai” , Momoiro Clover Z seem set on charging ahead riding the same wave of irrepressible energy and casual disregard for J-pop convention that has already been key to their popularity among both idol and indie subcultures.
Japanese singer-songwriter Satoru Ono has a pretty wide ranging background, having performed as a satellite member of the experimental indie/folk/psychedelic/pop projects of no fixed membership Tenniscoats and Maher Shalal Hash Baz, as well as working with guitar pop darling Hideki Kaji. From his hometown of Kyoto he has a long association with the frightfully hip but a bit scattershot and confusing Second Royal label, and in his current home in Tokyo, he has various connections with the Twee Grrrls/Violet & Claire/indiepop crowd but seems happy to ply his trade wherever he’s welcome.
The core of his own musical output as a singer-songwriter (he currently performs in a ramshackle three-piece as the Satoru Ono Band) lies partly in a handful of tracks for compilations, but primarily in the trio of albums he released through Second Royal between 2005 and 2010, so it’s these three records I’ll be taking a brief look at here.
CD, Second Royal, 2005
2005’s Frankenstein is perhaps the oddest of the three from a musical perspective, suggesting that while Ono had come into the process with an already well-developed songwriting sensibility, he was less sure of himself in terms of production and arrangement. While the likes of To Be Loathsome, You and Me, and Domperi contain echoes of White Album/Abbey Road era Beatles, elsewhere curiously dissonant synths and drum machine beats challenge that mood, as on A Rum Tale and the wonderful, Stereolab-like psychedelic pop workout of Hascach, one of the album’s highlights. Early single Wavered in Cambridge combines Ono’s 60s UK pop and psychedelic influences with a sensibility still rooted in Japanese 1990s style songwriting that he will have been familiar with from his work with Hideki Kaji, while the closest thing to a straight-up rocker on the album, Conventional People, is densely packed with oddities of its own, the guitar and synth battling for the song’s soul over a descending chord progression that intentionally or otherwise recalls Puffy’s Asia no Junshin (itself a pretty transparent ELO pastiche), and Ono’s voice, a nasal half-whisper that was never going to be suited to rocking out, giving the song the impression of a piece of twee pop that just fell off a cliff. Put simply, it’s an album that tries to be half a dozen different things at once (the title is apt) and the end result is an eclectic, occasionally disorientating collection of songs with some seriously impressive songwriting at its core.
This version of Hascach performed live with a standard rock setup is an interesting and quite widely divergent take on the album version:
CD, Second Royal, 2007
Skipping ahead two years and Ono has refined his style rather more for 2007’s Days of Perky Pat. The strong core of classic songwriting still forms the backbone of the album, although now the arrangements have jettisoned the electronic and synth elements in favour of more timeless organ sounds backing up a traditional drums, guitar and bass setup. That’s not to say that Days of Perky Pat is in any way more limited in terms of its musical range, with Ono’s melodies effortlessly hitting sweet spot after sweet spot without ever seeming to repeat themselves and never getting stuck in the cliches of a particular scene and its associated generic rut. The album still packs surprises with the summery groove of Afternoon in My Own Festival kicking in just as it seemed like the album was settling into a pattern of uptempo guitar pop and late Beatles-influenced rock. Ono then follows it with Clown Song, with its echoes of The Kinks/Jam’s David Watts, and the full-on Glitterstomp of Two Wins and Three Losses. Days of Perky Pat is, in summary, a more coherent piece of production and arrangement, but doesn’t indicate any narrowing of Ono’s songwriting range, balancing a consistent atmosphere with discrete songwriting gems in a way that marks him as a songwriter with a consummate grasp of the intricacies of guitar pop.
CD, Second Royal, 2010
This is something that Ono developed and refined still further on 2010’s Tales from Cross Valley, this time with the help of producer Dave Naughton (who had previously worked with Belle & Sebastian and Teenage Fanclub). Again, there isn’t a duff moment on here, effortlessly channelling The Kinks, late Beatles, Elvis Costello and the less sonically-obsessed elements of 80s and 90s indiepop in a way that confidently keeps its lively steps on the right side of the line between timeless and merely retro. There are moments where the influences are worn recognisibly close to the sleeve, with C-Berry containing if not too much exactly, certainly enough of Costello’s Oliver’s Army to be easily noticeable. Again, there is little in the way of repetition, even of material and ideas from previous albums, but a sense of what kind of range of material a Satoru Ono album will contain might now be settling, with powerpop rockers (Old Rose Stout Union), bouncy, breezy Beatlesy guitar pop numbers (I Will Be There) and faintly eerie waltz-time ballads (Moon it’s You). The only moment where the upbeat, summery, classic guitar pop atmosphere breaks down is on the dreamy Above Jewel, with its fragile female vocals, atmospheric synth backdrop and distant beats recalling electronic-tinged 90s lo-fi indiepop that groups like the Trembling Blue Stars sometimes played with. What Ono never allows to happen is for the hooks and melodies to lag, sag or drag in any way, and if Tales from Cross Valley doesn’t exactly move him on substantially from Days of Perky Pat, it certainly solidifies his position as one of Japan’s foremost guitar pop songwriters.
Satoru Ono Band: C-Berry
One interesting way in which Ono does seem to be experimenting is by writing new material in Japanese rather than English for what might be the first time. I know a few Japanese songwriters who prefer to write lyrics in English, saying that it’s difficult to get Japanese sentences to flow with pop music rhythms, which makes me wonder if one of the enduring differences between R&B-influenced Western classic songwriting and Japanese kayoukyoku-originated pop might be related to differences in how the styles treat rhythm (punk or postpunk is flexible enough in how it treats vocals for differences between Japanese and English not to be an issue, while dance music goes perhaps the other way and forces English to behave in a more disciplined fashion). In any case, new songs that Ono has been debuting live recently indicate that his next album is likely to have a significant amount of Japanese language content. That’s not to say of course that there’s anything particularly wrong with his English (it’s occasionally awkward and unnatural to native ears, but it’s far from the blathering awfulness of bands like Love Psychedelico), but as a challenge to express himself in a language which he speaks in his daily life but which exists almost entirely outside the musical tradition from which his own music draws, it’s an interesting step.
This post I’d like to direct your attention to is a pretty old, dating back a couple of years now, which as we all know is like the Precambrian Era in Web-years, but it’s still interesting and relevant, so check it out here.
It’s from the sporadically-updated but always thoughtful and worth-reading Appears blog (hat tip to Patrick from Make Believe Melodies for putting me onto the site in the first place) on the state of English language Japanese music fandom and the need for more critical analysis. The writer is way politer then necessary about the more knuckle-dragging, transferred-nationalism elements of the overseas fan community, and I think gets tied up in knots a little in trying to analyse their way around the issue of cultural relativism, cultural imperialism and just generally what legitimacy a foreigner has to express a critical opinion of Japanese pop culture (quick answer: as much right as anyone) but if the worst thing you can think of to say about someone is that they’re nicer than they need to be, that’s basically a rather good sign.
In the end though, there needs to be more of this sort of analysis in the Japanese language media. It’s something I’m looking into at the moment and hopefully will be able to write about in the future, but in terms of the limited (in more ways than one) scope of the English language Japanese music fan community, this is a powerful mission statement.
Hey, have you heard the new album by The Close Lobsters? Wicked, isn’t is? Oh, and the new Pale Fountains, isn’t it just utterly brill? And I’ve got tix for Felt next week, which is going to be ace for deffo — you’ll be there, right?
Chances are your answer to all the above is going to be no, since you’re not living in cold, grey, wet, Thatcher-era Britain. However, a small but dedicated corner of the Japanese indie scene are still carrying the flame, carefully shielding it against the wind and rain as they shuffle through life in their NHS specs and tank tops, collars of their macs turned up against the 80s chill, vocals turned down to near incomprehensibility in the mix and reverb whacked up to eleven on the guitars.
Enter Boyish, who are so mad keen on 1980s Britain that their new Summer Dream mini-album sounds exactly like a Macbook Pro loaded up with Garageband slipped through a wormhole to a damp afternoon in 1986 Manchester. Or Glasgow. Or Birmingham. Or Liverpool. Oh, you get it, right? You know the deal: jangly guitars, lovelorn lyrics, faint air of disaffection. We’ve been here before, or a pretty similar place, with Sloppy Joe’s hilarious and ultimately charming Postcard Records homage With Kisses Four last year, but while Sloppy Joe teetered on the brink of knowing pastiche, offering sly winks and nods to specific songs, Summer Dream sounds more like a straight up act of devotion to the sounds of the 80s. If With Kisses Four was a love letter to the era, Summer Dream has taken a job as its live-in nanny and started breastfeeding its children in secret.
So, um, where was I? The music. As someone for whom The Close Lobsters’ Foxheads Stalk This Land probably ranks as one of the all time greatest albums in the history of recorded music, I’d have to say that these nine songs are really quite lovely. The murkiness on the vocal production goes a bit too far, but I made it through Friends’ (now Teen Runnings’) Let’s Get Together Again without suffering permanent injury and I’ll survive this. At a bit over 22 minutes, it doesn’t outstay its welcome, and when those chiming guitar solos kick in like they do in Blindfold or Winter Song, it’s enough to make a boy go squiffy.
There’s a broader point here about just what point there is in a musician from 2012 Tokyo making music that sounds like something from an economically depressed former mining or steelworking town in northern England 25 years ago, and it certainly does nothing to push Japanese indie forward in any meaningful way, but then group mastermind Mr. Iwasaki could justifiably argue that isn’t his responsibility. And in that narrow sense, he’d be right. This is music whose only responsibility is to the small band of tweepop retronauts who hang around Shibuya Echo and Jet Set Records and any number of indie blogs. Like, um, this one. It’s a button-pushing record made for fans of a specific sound, and it ruthlessly hits the right notes, crashing into exactly the chord changes you’re expecting at exactly the moment you’re expecting them, and delivering the heart surges and dreamy wig-outs with deadly precision like a fix to a desperate junkie. It’s nothing new, but in a world where “something new” can be a scary, disorientating and alienating force, indiepopsters can be forgiven for taking some comfort in the past.
A bit of self promotion here since this is a video my good friend Matt Schley shot for Zibanchinka, whose album Hatsubai Chushi I released through my label, Call And Response Records, last year. We filmed it in the toilet at Sangenjaya Heaven’s Door the last time the band were touring in Tokyo and here’s the result:
Zibanchinka: Nagisa no Hors d’Oeuvres
It’s a curiously poppy song for Zibanchinka, whose usual modus operandi is heavy, 70s guitar noise or one-minute post-hardcore garage-punk dirt scrambles, but it showcases the kind of Showa-era pop influence with which a lot of their music is infused as well as demonstrating what superb conventional pop songwriters they can be when they so choose.
The plan is to make a few more simple, cheap videos like this over the next couple of months showcasing different aspects of their sound, so expect more posts along these lines.
My April column goes back a bit to the early 2000s and takes another look at some of the classic alternative music that came out in Japan at that time. I remember not being particularly impressed by Supercar’s Highvision at the time, and falling between the mighty Futurama and the emotionally burned-out hymn to alienation that was Answer, it’s in a bit of an awkward position, but actually listening back, it stands up with the best of their oeuvre.
The World is Mine, on the other hand, was always a striking piece of work, and Quruli’s subsequent career has only emphasised further how groundbreaking a piece of work it is. Similarly, Num Heavymetallic is an album whose significance was pretty clear even at the time.
The most amazing thing listening to these albums ten years later is the sheer breadth of what these three bands thought they could get away with, and the extent to which their labels indulged them. Of course there are bands making similar things now, but that’s the point: they’re just following a trail already blazed by Supercar, Quruli and Number Girl. There’s a problem here too, which I didn’t have space to go into in the article, which is that the long shadow these bands cast could be catching Japanese alternative rock in a state of arrested development, crowding out new ideas from the mainstream.
Number Girl: Num Ami Dabutz
Another thought I didn’t have space to go into concerns the influence of Supercar. While there are plenty of bands in the alternative scene who sound like they’re following Number Girl and Quruli (although few who are following the mad, eclectic spazz-out of The World is Mine), Supercar don’t seem to have so many direct followers. Partly, this might be because this kind of indie/electronic crossover material is more difficult to copy, which would also explain why Quruli imitators tend to take after their folk-rock and emo influenced stuff than their electronic material. Another thought I had was that Supercar’s popularity and influence seems to be more apparent in the “mature” noitaminA-type anime world and related music scene, where emotionally washed-out music that harks back to childhood continues to teeter on the brink of dreams that Supercar themselves may have woken up from long ago. Certainly the anime world was the first place Miki Furukawa and Koji Nakamura’s new band Lama stopped off at when they formed last year.
There are so many reasons to love 2NE1, and I barely even get into them in this Japan Times review. The main thing is just how utterly, infectiously happy these brash, loud, utterly silly pop nuggets with their loopy, over-the-top production, swaggering spoken word intros, sassy asides and curious penchant for 1980s U.S. pop references make me.
One memory of my recent trip to Europe that will stick with me is watching a packed crowd in Ljubljana reacting to what might have been the first time 2NE1’s I Am the Best (or possible any K-pop at all) has ever been played in a Slovenian club. Electric doesn’t even begin to describe it. Earlier in the year, I dropped Fire into my set at an indie club in Kumamoto and again, you can just see the reaction ripple through the crowd. Whatever it is 2NE1 have, it taps into some kind of primal disco force.
Of course you can’t please everyone, and I gather some people found it a bit confusing. Obviously when writing a CD review, one doesn’t set out with the intention of provoking anger, distress or head-scratching bafflement in one’s readers. Unfortunately, much as I wish I had time to deal with a mixed-ability readership, that doesn’t lie within my capabilities at this time, so all I can offer is gentle encouragement that some people might want to step up their game.