Monthly Archives: January 2013

Strange Boutique (January 2013)

My first Japan Times column of the year is up today, so have a read of that here. It deals with some of the issues raised in Japanese business magazine Diamond about the music industry’s problems. It comes down pretty hard on Sony, and deservedly so because they’ve been wretched, but that doesn’t mean other companies can escape. Avex come out pretty well from Diamond’s piece, but that’s all relative, and they also deserve a share of the blame for their own part in the system.

One place where I think Sony should be singled out for praise is in being relatively early movers in the music streaming service market. I actually really quite like Music Unlimited, and with the subscription due to come down from ¥1480 to ¥980 in March, bringing it into line with forthcoming competitors like Spotify, it’s a pretty good deal. The fact that Sony Music Entertainment aren’t giving it their full support is a problem that I kind of skate over in the article, so I’m going to clarify here. Sony Music artists are featured on the service, including some quite big names like Mika Nakashima and Seiko Matsuda, although the former’s sales have been plummeting since her peak about ten years ago, and Matsuda is an oldie with correspondingly older fans, so it’s hard to see streaming sites siphoning off too many of her disc sales. What SME haven’t yet released onto their sister company’s service are their two biggest chart acts at the moment, Kana Nishino and Nogizaka46. Those are the kinds of artists who should not just be on the service, but they should be on the posters for the service. I find it personally rather annoying that YMO aren’t on there either, although Polysics and Supercar are, so indie types can be satisfied.

There are a lot of issues with streaming services, and Spotify has come in for a lot of criticism in the West for the tiny sums it pays artists per listen. I don’t really see a way around the problem though. $10 a month seems pretty reasonable for me as a consumer, but much more than that and I don’t think the service would be able to attract customers. It’s low enough that it doesn’t feel like paying much, but in a world where people on average buy only 1.5 CDs a year, it actually raises the amount of money people are spending on music to the equivalent of about 6 CDs a year. Also, as Diamond points out Spotify pays labels a higher percentage of royalties than iTunes does, so one might think that the music industry benefits overall. The system is brutally egalitarian in that you get money in exact proportion to how popular you are with the listeners, and companies, especially Japanese companies, don’t like ceding that much control to their idiot customers when they’ve spent decades building up business models designed to ensure people listen to exactly what they’re told to.

It also poses a problem to alternative artists though, because by focusing so much on popularity in terms of number of listens, it doesn’t take so much account of the different ways in which people listen to music, for example experimental works which might be listened to less often or only under certain circumstances by fans, but appreciated more than something that might be put on just as background music while cooking. A person who buys something by Factory Floor to play at parties and a Take That best-of that they listen to every day while doing housework has given equal money to both, but under Music Unlimited’s system, Factory Floor get next to nothing, while Take That do rather better. You might say that this corrects an unfair imbalance towards certain kinds of artists, but it does mean that artists who are already less popular, take a further hit in terms of their opportunities to make money.

It also raises interesting questions about the business model of AKB48 etc., whose chart positions and sales rely so much on fans buying multiple copies, most of which never get listened to. Music Unlimited or Spotify, if it becomes the universally accepted way of doing things, kills their business model (which might explain SME’s reluctance to release Nogizaka46 onto the service). I can see a future where the only music available to buy in physical form will be self-released indie CDs sold in person by bands at live shows and idol group singles bought as disposable commodities and traded for handshakes or voting slips.

In the meantime, Diamond’s article concludes that companies seem to be waking up to the reality of the new technological world they’re now in and suggests that 2013 will be the year a sea change starts to occur in how the music industry does business. There are actually people in the industry though who are less optimistic and believe that the Diamond piece was way too modest in its criticism. My own suggestion is that the slow adaption to change right now may be just as much a result of being paralysed with fear as it is mere conservatism.


Filed under Features, Strange Boutique

Why idol culture is eating alternative music and why Nakigao Twintail will save it

The popularity of idol music among indie and underground music fans is something I wrote about last year and it has only accellerated since with the growing popularity of Dempa Gumi inc. and BiS. At a recent concert at the 2,700-capacity Zepp Tokyo, Dempa Gumi inc. fans were moshing, crowdsurfing and generally rocking out like good punks, without much of the dead-eyed, robotic para para that is traditionally associated with idol music, while when I interviewed BiS, they presented a punkish, defiantly anti-idol public face. When I DJed at a 2013 countdown party at an alternative rock venue in Fukuoka, a Momoiro Clover Z tribute act performed next to the usual indie and punk acts. In fact I would go further than merely saying idol music is popular with indie and underground fans: I would say that it’s usurping the position that the indie and underground scenes used to occupy.

(This is the point where all the “it’s just pop music, you’re overanalysing this lol” types can kindly piss off.)

One reason I think is to do with business. Idol music provides a framework for marketing and imagery that makes it easy for record companies and talent agencies to sell. Because there is no inbuilt expectation that the girls should have any independence outside of the parameters set by the idol marketing and image management framework, it’s easier to package, produce and sell them without having to deal with the unpredictabilities of a rock band whose appeal is more likely to be tied up with more esoteric and difficult to predict aspects of themselves and their work. Members can be replaced and reshuffled more easily, cuter members can be parachuted in to improve mainstream appeal, and because the creative elements are handled on the management side, musical differences are irrelevant.

Also, because of the cheap production values and the acceptance (or even desirability) of amateurishness among idol fans, the scene provides a path for songwriters with an indie background into professional songwriting and production where they would be seen as a risk in more nominally mainstream music circles. Songwriters like Hyadain and Narasaki of Momoiro Clover Z would not be allowed to get away with what they do with the likes of Kana Nishino, and it’s telling that while big hitting 90s star producers such as Takeshi Kobayashi and Tetsuya Komuro were every bit as successful with their own bands as the artists they produced were, the names behind today’s idol stars are rarely worth a fraction of what their idol work sells when out on their own.

And then there’s the desire among fans for authenticity. It’s ironic that it is to idol music, the most transparently artificial music in the world, that fans are turning in the search for something real, but it’s essential to the genre’s appeal. Even with chart monstrosities AKB48, the process of watching idols grow up, make mistakes, learn and overcome difficulties is integral to the narrative that fans buy into. Within the artificial framework, the perception is that at least the girls themselves are being sincere. Similarly, the appeal of Momoiro Clover Z with their energetic schoolgirl acrobatics, Dempa Gumi inc. with their tale of socially withdrawn hikikomori backgrounds that they overcame through living the dream and turning their fantasies into reality, or BiS with their seemingly plain-speaking dismissal of the pretensions of other idol groups — all of these narratives play to an audience desire for authenticity.

Authenticity has always been the preserve of indie, rock and punk acts, and yet here are completely artificially produced groups who don’t play their own instruments, don’t write their own songs (when an idol tells you she “writes her own lyrics”, be very suspicious), and who are recruited through agencies (early in their careers, Momoiro Clover Z and AKB48 sister groups shuffled and traded members) actually competing with indie and rock bands on their home turf.

Part of what’s happened here is that rock bands have shuffled off their cloak of authenticity and can no longer legitimately claim it as their own. Rock music, or at least what we might call “band music”, was the dominant format for “serious” music in the 90s, and the big rock bands of the day like Mr. Children occupy a position, through no fault of their own, where they’re blocking off new artists from coming through. Why should a label in troubled times invest money in new acts that might not ever become successful, when they can just repackage and re-release old acts whose success is guaranteed?

Even into the 2000s, indie or alternative-influenced bands were socially relevant for young people, with the Supercar-Number Girl-Quruli axis defining indie rock for a generation to follow, but the bands that followed them were successively watered-down copies, and even where the music could match up, the social relevance couldn’t. Supercar split up, Quruli settled into rock mediocrity, Shutoku Mukai and Shiina Ringo retreated from their positions as inspirationaol voices of their generations and formed popular but more technically-orientated bands in Zazen Boys and Tokyo Jihen. No new voices came in to replace them.

And then there was the sense that rock music was somehow foreign and elitist, perhaps bolstered by the high entry costs for musicians wanting to enter the live circuit, especially in Tokyo. Independent music’s biggest expression in the mainstream was the 90s Shibuya-kei boom, which was dominated by cultural curators with elite university backgrounds, connections with the fashion scene and overseas music. As the idea lost hold that “cool” was something imported from the West and imposed from above by cultural elites, a sense grew, influenced by the growing relative strength of the anime and manga scene as a cultural market, that Japanese authenticity should really be Japanese. Idol fandom often plays off shared cultural signifiers from childhood like anime, tokusatsu monster serials, pro-wrestling and others, and whether out of insecurity or increased confidence, it’s a genre that celebrates its Japaneseness, its traditions, and youth and modernity at the same time. It may be confused, and it by no means rigidly excludes all things foreign (as idol music reaches out more from the otaku scene into the indie and punk scenes, nostalgia increasingly trumps nationalism), but idol music does contain within it a sense of a nation and a generation exploring its own sense of self.

With authentic voices facing industry obstacles to gaining popularity on their own, and genuinely inspiring voices in music unwilling to take responsibility for the popularity they had previously earned, the arena of idol music has become the only avenue into professional or semi-professional songwriting for musicians, and one of the only expressions in the mainstream of fans’ desires for a narrative of authenticity. Fans who in previous generations would have turned to alternative music, find idol music more readily available and more easily palatable; existing fans of indie and punk music find it easy to cross over, maybe at first convincing themselves that they’re being ironic or that idol music really does have genuine subversive sentiments.

Now here’s why it’s wrong.

For all that idol music is interesting and culturally relevant, it is bad for music because it relies on fans substituting an attractive lie for a difficult reality. The narratives that it spins may have some truth to them, but their representation to the audience is in the simplified form of a pantomime, a performance. Fans who buy into the idol narratives are taking the easy route, taking a shortcut to emotional gratification.

It can be argued that it is elitist and snobbish to complain that idols don’t play their own instruments, because as long as their performances are filled with purity, sincerity, hard work and energy, that’s enough. Playing music is difficult, and an idol’s attractiveness is intertwined with her accessibility, her normality. She shouldn’t be too talented because that would set her apart from her fans, make her inaccessible. An idol who can play music well is an exciting novelty to be patted on the head like a performing dog, and any talent she has must be apologised for with a shy giggle and balanced out by a corresponding weakness or vulnerability.

Because for all its “You go, girl!” gloss, idolism is socially conservative at heart, and it’s no surprise that the rising popularity of idol pop in Japan runs hand in hand with polls showing increased support for traditional roles of women in Japanese family life. Idols bow long and hard to their (mostly male) audiences, make themselves pretty, yell out breathless, tear-stained thanks to their (mostly male) fans for allowing them the opportunity to live their dreams, and meanwhile male managers and production teams pull the strings behind the scenes, pitching and calibrating the message that the girls will send so that it can better reach out to the disenfranchised 90s/2000s generation male demographic, sending out appeals to nostalgia for things that the girls themselves are too young to even know about and probably wouldn’t have been interested in even if they weren’t.

Idol music may provide a path into the mainstream for musical ideas that would be smothered at birth in a more conventional J-Pop artist, but it isn’t really subversive. To see what a genuinely subversive idol would look like, just look at Jun Togawa back in the 1980s, exploiting lolita fantasies, shrieking about sex and menstruation, deconstructing issues of female body image and satirising objectified feminine stereotypes. Don’t wait for Momoiro Clover Z to do that. They won’t. They aren’t interested in doing so and their fans don’t really want them to. It’s not their job. Their job is the be young, cheerful, pretty (but not too pretty), energetic, and to tell their fans how much they appreciate them.

Because idol music massages a need for authenticity that isn’t being provide elsewhere, because it provides that raw rush in such a palatable, sugar-coated form, because it feeds a sense of nostalgia in a generation defined by uncertainty, because of all these things, we don’t notice that we’re being fed a placebo, a dummy pill. Idols provide musical homeopathy for the jilted generation.

But that only works until you see the real thing.

The real thing is Nakigao Twintail. It’s probably a lot of other bands from all over Japan who you’re never going to hear about as well, but here, now, it’s this particular group of five seventeen year-old high school second graders from Saga in Kyushu.

They’re the heavy gut-punch of reality that makes you sick up the idol sugar, because they’re all the things that the current generation of idol music, with its winks and nudges towards alternative culture, wants you to think it is, but without the smooth edges.

They play their own instruments of course, but they don’t just play them — the video clips on YouTube do the band little justice, but they hack at them, tear at them, make them scream for mercy. If all-girl rock band anime K-On! sounded like this, it wouldn’t be such a piece of shit, but then Nakigao Twintail aren’t K-On! or anything like it. They don’t offer up an inspiring narrative of weaknesses overcome and lingering vulnerabilities by way of apology for their talent, they’re just fuck you, we’ve got the stage for the next thirty minutes, so either scream and yell like you adore us, or fuck off. A bunch of seventeen year-old girls singing and dancing along to a backing track may or may not be sincere in their passion and energy, but a bunch of seventeen year-old girls with a front rank of three electric guitars plugged into Marshall amps can deliver approximately eight and a half gazillion times more.

There’s no ageing punk dude in the shadows feeding them lines, just a couple of the members’ mums sitting in the corner (whether to support them or keep them out of trouble, it’s hard to tell). When they walk off stage and come back on in the guise of a cute idol-type alter-ego band, they announce their next song is called Jisatsu (Suicide) and the mums put their faces in their hands in shame: “What kind of daughters have we brought up? Where did we go wrong!” and then you look at the band, shunning uniforms, a guitarist still young enough to know that shades look cool indoors, the singer’s clothes mutilated with safety pins, and you think the question should really be “Where did we go right?”

Where BiS are confrontational, provocative and critical of idol culture, they’re really just carving themselves a consumer niche in an increasingly crowded market. It’s a schtick and they’re welcome to it. It’s fun, but it’s fun in an abstract, intellectual sense. It’s a pantomime of what punk bands like Nakigao Twintail are doing for real. There’s no need for a Dempa Gumi inc.-style redemption narrative or a Momoiro Clover Z style “weekend warriors” gimmick to fit the band around their high school schedules: the band won’t even exist in two months because they’ll be entering their final year of school and they don’t do things by halves. This isn’t a showbiz career, because Nakigao Twintail are all about the moment. They’re not here to provide you with a service, massage your ego or sense of nostalgia, and the only gratification they’re interested in is their own and now, now, now.

They might graduate from high school and go on to form some cheesy pop-punk atrocity like Scandal, but I doubt it. More likely, they’ll come back to music at university, grow in sophistication and technical skill and enter the music scene, probably in a few different bands with various other people, as a more mature, more musically developed version of something vaguely similar to what they’re doing now. Some of them might gain a degree of success, but probably not doing anything as outrageously silly, rough edged and purely, selfishly thrilling as this.

And they shouldn’t, and we shouldn’t expect them to. If youthful passion, excitement and careless energy could be replicated that easily, it wouldn’t be as precious, it wouldn’t be real: it would be a fantasy. This is something that Dempa Gumi inc. kind of admitted to their audience onstage at Zepp Tokyo. The group delivered their interminable, tearful monologues to the crowd one by one, then came back onstage in costumes representing their dreams, but they were only facades of costumes, stitched together by straps at the back, revealing rather more mundane nightclothes beneath. It was a metaphor, see?

By wearing the fantasy and the artifice of entertainment industry convention on the surface, idol music can to a certain extent hide it in plain sight, but the genre structures and restrictions that limit the extent to which idol music can truly express anything other than watered-down, sugared-up narratives for its listeners are no less important for that. You can say that it’s just pop music and should be treated as such, loved unconditionally for that alone, and I think I would agree with you (anyone who’s a regular reader of this blog will know that I have a lot of fun with idol music), but its importance as a successful and popular arena for subcultural creative types and fans means that whether we like it or not, it isn’t positioned solely as pop music.

When teenage girls and boys think about getting into music and idol music is the only left-of-mainstream entry point that they can see, either as a performer or a fan, that has a knock-on effect on the next generation too. There are signs that the idol scene may be fraying at the edges and eating itself now, but with the industry getting quite comfortable with the business model and not looking for any major new upsets in times they’re already finding terrifyingly turbulent, don’t count on a major reaction against it appearing any time soon — certainly not with any kind of serious support from the major label-funded media.

Instead of that, we can just hope that genuinely independent voices will still find a way to filter through. Enjoy the fantasies of idol pop, but don’t mistake them for a revolution, or even a meaningful alternative: it’s just a business model that has somehow colonised part of alternative music subculture’s collective consciousness. Instead, it’s the genuinely raw, rough-edged voices of the sons and daughters of those shame-filled (but hopefully secretly proud) mothers who should be celebrated and encouraged.


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Top 20 Releases of 2012: Afterword

As I said in the intro, this list was framed by my own fluctuating tastes and just what I happened to   have listened to this year. Jesse Ruins are a superb band who released their Dream Analysis EP via Captured tracks last February.I didn’t get a chance to hear it during the course of the year so it couldn’t make the list, but it’s probably a good record.

None-more-Kansai garage-noise extroverts Gezan also released an album that I didn’t get the chance to hear in 2012, but it was apparently good enough for Time Out Tokyo to rate it as one of the year’s best. Goth-Trad is another artist I didn’t get a proper chance to listen to, but many picked up. It features in the Time Out Tokyo list as well as Make Believe Melodies’ 2012 album roundup (along with other buzzed-about artists I still haven’t heard, like Taquwami)

And then there are albums that missed out on my Top 20 but which might have made it on another day. Sekaitekina Band’s debut album was good but I went for Underrated instead because I felt the musical development that had gone on between the two records instantly outdated the earlier release. Also there was a new album by capsule, Stereo Worxx, which had some very good stuff on it, but which by the end of the year I’d found I wasn’t really listening to.

I’m not going to do a “Top Tracks of 2012” series since most of my favourite tracks, especially in the indie and alternative spheres, are contained within the albums I’ve just written about, but there are a few excellent mainstream-ish pop tunes I’d like to flag up (all by girl groups, natch). As well as the Kyary Pamyu Pamyu album and the aforementioned capsule, Perfume’s Spending All My Time was really good.

Idol group Dempa Gumi inc.’s awesome, hyperactive cover of The Beastie Boys’ Sabotage is also worth revisiting, especially after having seen them perform it live last weekend.

Also, Korean girl group 2NE1’s I Love You was a great example of pop at the more sophisticated extreme.

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Top 20 Releases of 2012: No.1 – Miu Mau – News

I think friends of mine probably knew that this was coming. I raved about it when it came out, and I’ve been DJing tracks from this EP pretty much constantly ever since I got my hands on it at the Kyushu Pop Festival in June. Mirai no Classic made its first appearance in spring 2011, but it never gets old. It’s the song that more than anything else I’ve ever played is guaranteed to have people coming up to me in bars and clubs, asking, “What the hell is this? It’s brilliant!”

The title track, News, is a worthy follow-up, drawing on some of the same general dryly observational, teetering on the brink of irony, new wave-influenced themes and sharing similar spindly, wandering guitar lines, but with a funkier beat.

Neon Sign pushes Hiromi Kajiwara’s guitar into the background a bit more, letting band leader Masami Takashima’s synth step to the fore, with a melody that harks back to a lot of the material on Miu Mau’s lo-fi, Shibuya-kei-styled debut album, Design. While it lacks the sharp edges of the first two songs, it has a soft, marshmallow charm of its own, mixing the vocals with greater subtlety and with the greater emphasis on synths giving it a richer, less sparse texture.

In my initial review, I didn’t give much time to the two remixes that close out the CD, but they are both outstanding in their own right. Future Classic (Girlfriend Record Remix) is a ponderous electronic dub track that cuts out the main body of the vocals and just holds on to the catch “fa fa fa”s and the spine tingling harmonies of the chorus.

News (Girlfriend Record Remix) is another deliberately paced electronic affair, although it holds onto the structure of the original song more closely at first, letting the vocals run over an electro-funk beat for the first couple of minutes before breaking out into a swooping, synth-laden outer-space disco blissout.

The fact that this was a relatively obscure, largely unremarked upon CD/R release and not a massive, genre-defining indie pop hit is the sort of thing that were I not the positive-thinking, optimistic sort that I am, might start making me wonder whether or not the Japanese record buying public are taste-bereft idiots. The reaction of people whenever given the chance to hear it suggests that I’m right in my more positive assessment, and so I can just urge you you spread the word and get these magnificent songs out there more and more.

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Top 20 Releases of 2012: No.2 – V/A– Ripple

I’ve written about this Nagoya bands compilation album extensively, with a Japan Times review, an accompanying blog post, and a mention in my review of the year, so there’s little extra to add, but two small points come to mind. Firstly, I love compilations. Secondly, and related, I love finding out rich seams of new music that I hadn’t known existed before. Ripple introduced me to bands like Dororonica, Freedom, and Free City Noise, as well as giving me excellent new tracks from Pop-Office and Sekaitekina Band (their contribution, New, also appears in a re-recorded form on 51 Records’ split album Underrated).

While Ripple includes more melodic tracks like The Moments’ lovely indiepop janglefest Shining Eyes and Yoshito Ishihara’s yojohan folk style New Mexico Midnight Cowboy No.1 (I don’t wanna be killed by your romance any more), fundamentally Ripple is a punk album. It’s also the best punk album to come out of Japan this year, and it set down an essential marker in terms of quality and style for me in the organising and selecting of music for my own compilation album, which I put out later the same year.

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Top 20 Releases of 2012: No.3 – Extruders – Pray



CD, self-released, 2012

A live recording on a CD/R presented in an unassuming brown paper bag might not be the kind of thing that would usually compete for album of the year accolades, but Kanagawa’s Extruders are an unusual band in a lot of ways.

They have their most obvious roots in postpunk, a sound more obviously apparent on their short, sharp, but nonetheless understated 2007 debut, Neuter — this is a band who once played a set composed entirely of cover versions from Wire’s second album, Chairs Missing (also, try translating the song title “Collapsing New Buildings” into German). Without obviously changing what they do, however, Extruders have grown in both depth and richness of sound, as well as subtlety, often touching on the lest bombastic fringes of psychedelia. The vocals never rise above a whisper, but the songs are textured with both more melody and more noise. Song lengths have grown, but so has the band’s skill in exploring musical space, and while Kimi no Hane Oto clocks up seven and a half minutes, not a moment of that is wasted.

Fiercely independent, Extruders frequently drop out of the live circuit completely, retreating into the studio for months at a time to work on material or new recordings; when they do play shows, they insist on bringing all their own gear to gigs regardless of what equipment the venues already have; and they rarely play without their own video projection backdrop. Every performance they make is more a self-contained art performance than a gig as such, and the atmosphere they create onstage is so absolute that even the rowdiest punk audiences are reduced to awed silence within seconds.

They are also a band with a keen sense of not only musical space, but also the physical space the music inhabits, which is why the decision to do a performance dedicated to Benzaiten/Sarasvati, the Buddhist deity of art, at Saimyoji temple in Niigata is far more than just a gimmick. Pray contains the entirety of the band’s short live set, with the addition of two studio versions, and without getting into the spiritual relationship between the music and religion (and the dangerous descent into hippy twattery down which such lines of thought are often the first step), we can say perhaps that the minimalism and detail of Extruders’ music are a good match for the sparse aesthetics of a Buddhist temple and its grounds.

And this level of attention to detail naturally extends from their performance to their music. Every sound, from the most delicate, melodic guitar phrase to the most earsplitting explosion of feedback is delivered with laser precision, and while their stage manner is for the most part static, this imbues even the smallest movements with greater impact. In particular, the guitarist is constantly exploiting the theatrical potential of even the most mundane aspects of the act of playing music, from his position relative to the audience and the movement of a guitar stroke, to the act of unplugging his guitar in order to play a noise solo with his fingers on the loose cable. Even on an audio recording like this, these subtle flourishes are timed intricately enough that they occasionally carry across, as on the closing track (of both the concert and in its recorded incarnation the CD) track, Mono.

Pray may have been released humbly and without fanfare, but it’s a beautiful record from one of the best bands in Japan. Extruders are currently barricaded in the studio, working on a new album for release spring 2013, and you’d be fools to miss it.

Full disclosure: A studio recording of the song Collapsing New Buildings was also included on my label, Call And Response Records’ Dancing After 1AM compilation.

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Top 20 Releases of 2012: No.4 – Shugo Tokumaru – In Focus?


In Focus?

CD, P-Vine, 2012 (US: Polyvinyl, 2013)

Writing about Shugo Tokumaru is difficult because the sheer breadth of his musical influences, the denseness of his his arrangements, and the dizzying array of instruments he incorporates make it difficult to put it in any kind of easy context, single out any particular moments of brilliance from music so richly laden with hundreds of them, or indeed pick out any defining characteristics from music that defies characterisation. In Focus? is folk, psychedelic pop, on Poker it’s post-Shibuya-kei bossa nova pop, on Pah-Paka it’s Plus-tech Squeeze Box-style effects mashup, on Katachi, there are echoes of Mercury Rev’s Deserter’s Songs in the musical saw that runs through it, and on Tightrope it’s just the most affecting and beautiful song of the year.

One theme running through the album, and indeed most of Tokumaru’s work is a classic Japanese pop melodic sensibility that puts him quite clearly in a songwriting lineage that includes such luminaries as Happy End and particularly songwriter, producer (and fellow Beach Boys fan) Eiichi Ohtaki. Tokumaru’s range is broader than any of his musical ancestors though, and from one moment to the next, he gently bombards the listener with more ideas than can be processed on only one listen. He introduces glorious melodic phrases and then abandons them a moment later, only to introduce something even more beautiful seconds later. He can deliver more classic tunes in three minutes than many J-Pop songwriters manage in their entire careers.

Shugo Tokumaru is the only indie or pop musician in Japan that I wouldn’t feel it was an overstatement to call a genius, and in any sane list of Japan’s best releases of 2012, In Focus? would be number one by default. That I rate three albums above it this year probably says more about the peculiarities of my tastes, biases and caprices than it does about what if it wasn’t quite my favourite album of the year, was certainly the most essential.

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Top 20 Releases of 2012: No.5 – Half Sports – Slice of Our City

I pitched my initial review of Half Sports’ Slice of Our City in terms of something I don’t really like about a lot of other indiepop bands (although as Boyish’s Supper Dream shows, when the music’s good enough, I’m happy to throw away any principles I have on that front). But of course what I really like about the album and what has kept me coming back to it throughout the year is what it does rather than what it doesn’t do. The noise freakout at the end of No Kids Have Seen, the punk rush followed by abrupt tempo shift in Break Away, the wall of feedback running through the background of Sad Eyes and We Got Along Right From The Start like a more upbeat Jesus And Mary Chain (a Jesus And Merry Chain?), the stuttering guitars of Knock Back Your Request, and most importantly the restlessly energetic drumming, soaring guitar, and surging, raggedly harmonic choruses — all these things and more besides are what make Slice of Our City such a rush of pure indie powerpop joy.

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Top 20 Releases of 2012: No.6 – Fancy Num Num – No Now


No Now

CD, Fuji, 2012

Fancy Num Num, despite having a band name that sounds like the pinnacle of idol cutesyness, are actually something far richer and more musically satisfying. Starting in 2007, their self-released 2009 debut CD/R, Meikyo to Shite no Sekai, was a scuzzy, drum machine-driven take on Showa era rock’n’roll, but in the three years that elapsed between that and 2012’s No Now, the group evolved into something far more sophisticated.

It opens with On Fog, an ambient, krautrock-influenced, electronic-led instrumental (think Dieter Moebius/Roedelius/etc.), while Telephone Song packs in a sharper-edged, almost Talking Heads-like vibe. There are moments too, particularly on the more synth-led tracks, that are reminiscent of Air, and thanks to the reliance on relentless, rolling electronic beats, there’s a sense of implacable, slowly advancing menace that runs through many of the songs.

There’s sweetness to go with the encroaching dark, however, and Fancy Num Num also retain their tendency towards 1970s Showa Pop and kayoukyoku-esque melodies. Aoi Siam Neko is case in point, and Marino no Yoake combines elements of 80s synth-pop and some intense, expansive prog rock guitar soloing with a tune that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on an early-70s Chiyo Okumura record. Shinkai Uchu-ron has a similarly classic feel to the melody, sounding simultaneously catchy and upbeat as well as brooding and melancholy, while Tajigen no Gake Kara takes a melody that recalls some of the more complex and emotionally mature later material of Momoe Yamaguchi and turns it into something a bit more subtly funky.

Throughout No Now, Fancy Num Num’s secret weapon is guitarist Tomoyo Nishida. Even when soloing wildly, she never takes over the song completely, drifting in and out of the band’s repetitive machine rhythms while at the same time contributing in an understated but imaginative way to the music’s texture and overall sleepy-yet-tense atmosphere. Hitomi Harada’s bass wanders along inside the beats, spinning more minimalist lines, while Misa Haijima’s vocals are pitched immaculately at the intersection between despair, portent and lassitude. All these attributes come together on the closing, title track, the song building ominously in fits and starts for nine minutes before ultimately resolving itself into something rather pretty after all.

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Top 20 Releases of 2012: No.7 – Doit Science – Information



CD, &Records, 2012

While Fukuoka is undoubtedly the cultural capital of the southwestern island of Kyushu, the music scene in (relatively) nearby Kumamoto also produces more than its fair share of great music, and Doit Science are most talked about band in the city right now.

Quite what makes them so exciting is hard to pin down. Lo-fi alternative music with weird time signatures is an ever present feature of local scenes up and down the country, and yet Doit Science still stand out. There are perhaps some similarities with labelmates Nhhmbase in the combination of off-kilter arrangements and wide-eyed, impassioned vocals. Certainly one point that stands out about their music is the way that where most bands of this type feature vocals that yowl and scrape, Doit Science sing out clear and strong, like Nhhmbase often launching into a disarming falsetto, and making use of multiple vocalists to create a sort of Beefheartian barbershop vibe, awash with staccato interjections and sometimes deliberately landing off-key.

And despite the delight the band seem to take in throwing musical obstacles in the way of the melodies, the beauty of some of these songs still shines through. Toshi Keikaku (Delicate Mix ver.) in particular is probably the most melancholy and affecting song ever written about urban planning, but even the more uncompromisingly disruptive tracks like Tasogare (Sweet Death ver.) and Information is Just a Needle (Plan B) reveal a keen ear for unconventional hooks that nevertheless worm their way into your brain.

Listening to Information sometimes feels like the CD is skipping, but there’s also a clear grounding in accessible, blues-based chord progressions at the heart of a lot of the music. As well as Captain Beefheart, there’s also something of Syd Barrett in the combination of sweetness and sheer oddness. It may sound like rock music turned inside out, cut into pieces and reassembled by a hyperactive child, but it still is rock music, and it does a marvellous job of sounding great without compromising either its accessibility or its avant-garde principles.

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