Monthly Archives: July 2013

Max: Tacata

OK, now this isn’t the sort of thing I’d usually waste time with, but it’s interesting for a number of reasons. First, it’s a comeback single by Max, who emerged in the mid-late 90s out of Namie Amuro’s group the Super Monkeys, so it represents an era of J-Pop where idols were practically non-existent as any kind of mainstream phenomenon, and where J-Pop was pitched up somewhere quite close to where K-Pop is pitched now, albeit with a relationship with the international music scene that only ever really flowed one way. Tacata is a cover of a Euro-dance hit from a couple of years ago by the Italian group Tacabro, and Max have past form with this, having in the distant past covered Whigfield’s hit Saturday Night.Max: Tacata

It’s not really a case of Japanese pop seeking out inspiration and revitalisation from overseas though, so much as an exercise in nostalgia for Max’s fans and for all those thirty-somethings who remember them vaguely from their teenage years. You can see this right from the start in the cheesy 90s computer graphics that display the group’s name. Still, it’s J-Pop made by real actual women rather than children wearing shy, fuck-me smiles and flashing as much of their upper thighs as they dare, and it’s a welcome reminder that this was the sort of thing that used to be normal back in the day.

It’s also weird in all sorts of little ways. It has this ridiculous spoken word intro that seems to pastiche the sort of sassy intros CL from K-Pop superstars 2NE1 does, but delivered in such a cack-handed way. My lo-fi bedroom-new wave band Trinitron did something like this sort of spoken word intro in our song Music To Watch Boys By as a deliberately bad (if affectionate) parody and experience regularly makes me aware of how easily irony can be misconstrued as deadly seriousness — still, are Max also doing a parody, or is it a genuine, failed attempt to be cool? Because getting deeper into the song, the Japanese lyrics are also delivered in a bizarre, stilted enunciation, as if by a foreigner unfamiliar with the language, and that has to be deliberate.

Obviously the song’s horrible, albeit sort of fun in a summery kind of Ace of Base/Macarena sort of way, like the soundtrack to getting pissed on sangria and carelessly acquiring sexually transmitted diseases at an Ibiza beach resort in 1997, although 2NE1’s forthcoming Korean Falling in Love single, released a month prior to Max’s effort, manages to channel a lot of the same 90s cod-reggae cheesiness in a rather more musically sophisticated, modern sounding way.2NE1: Falling in Love

The comparison between the two songs and the two groups is relevant because despite the contrast between the naive charm of Max and the more aggressive modernity of 2NE1, they both represent something similar in terms of contemporary pop performed by women who don’t act like children. There is a difference in that Max are stuck in the 90s, while 2NE1 are still very much about now. In fifteen years time, however, both groups will sound equally dated and all that will be left for listeners of either, if such listeners even exist, will be nostalgia. In any case, Max is back, and this summer might be the battleground that decides whether or not nostalgia is the new modern.

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V/A: International Pop Underground Sounds (Sickness of a Fourteen Year Old Girl ) Vol.1

CD, 14 Years Records, 2013

CD, 14 Years Records, 2013

Rather than being focused on a particular scene, this forthcoming (September release) compilation, featuring artists from London to Japan via Italy, is more a statement of intent by Japanese noise-pop duo Umez: an announcement that primarily consists of, “So this is what we like, yeah?”

And on the basis of this collection of tracks, what Umez like seems to be a kind of ultra-lo-fi indie-noise sketchbook, often characterised by a kind of childlike nature that ranges from the stripped-down, whisper-voiced nostalgic jazz-pop whimsy of Teta Mona via the stupid-clever Fall/Half Man Half Biscuit/Art Brut nonsense-punk of Dog Chocolate to the angry, throwing-the-toys-out-of-the-pram, machine noise tantrum of Nananova.

Umez’ own track, the opening Rainbow, balances the noise and pop elements most finely and really forms the pivot on which the compilation is balanced, its looping garage-pop riff and distant, 4AD-esque vocals interrupted first by a perky synth solo and then by an unexpected interlude that sounds like a kind of electronic didgeridoo. Joey Fourr’s Play With Yrself pulls off a similar balance, marrying scratchy lo-fi garage pop production to a sweet melody, seemingly heavily indebted to the Pixies’ Velouria, albeit delivered with more of an air of bedroom-punk insouciance.

International Pop Underground Sounds (Sickness of a Fourteen Year Old Girl ) Vol.1 seems to delight in tossing the listener back and forth between extremes, with the aforementioned Nananova giving way to Taigen Kawabe, here eschewing the heavy psychedelia of his usual band Bo Ningen in favour of a kind of synth-based nursery rhyme pop that is perhaps a new expression of his well-known fixation on Japanese idol music, before lurching right back into the fierce scum noise of Brutes’ uncompromising Tear Jerk.

The closest thing to an ordinary pop-rock song on the album is Kobe band Stereo Future’s Eight-Beat Daydream and it comes as a relief after the chaotic pinball game of the first part of the album. It’s immediately followed by the more subtly disorientating Bastard Sword’s Open Up Your Heart, whose autotuned vocals give the otherwise mid-paced grind of the song the disconcerting air of a laid-back electro track, rather like those occasions (United, Hot on the Heels of Love) when Throbbing Gristle tried to pretend they were ordinary dance producers.

This unwillingness to ever let the listener settle down continues right to the end with Bakakuri gradually destroying a series of ambient chimes with walls of noise and feedback, followed by the looping, music box melody of Grimm Grimm’s Kazega Fuitara Sayonara with its vocals sounding distant amid the fuzzy guitar and lo-fi production, the simple, almost naive clockwork percussion mixed just a little too high, giving it a curiously mechanical forward momentum. Sgt’s untitled closing track then throws the whole album off in another direction with its technically accomplished instrumental postrock/prog delivered with dazzling intensity. The violin that wails through the music brings to mind instant comparisons with Rovo, but Sgt exhibit less of Rovo’s expansive spacerock tendencies, keeping the listener earthbound with off-kilter, jazz-influenced rhythms that disrupt your takeoff every time the music seems about to finally launch you skyward — in this aspect at least, embodying something of International Pop Underground Sounds (Sickness of a Fourteen Year Old Girl ) Vol.1’s own peculiar Janus-like tendencies.

So the album is a wild ride, with the European and Japanese acts sitting side by side with nary a crack between them even as they strive to rip each other, the album, and the unwitting listener’s brain apart. In the end, what all bands share is a playful creative imagination that helps link together the jumble of eclectic musical ideas into this thrilling whole.

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Analysing overanalysis (WARNING: META)

The phrase “You’re overanalysing this” is one of the most annoying phrases a music journalist can hear, because analysing music is a key part of a music journalist’s job, and so embedded in that statement is the implication that the journalist’s job is useless. Putting aside the question of whether that is indeed the case (there are lots of useless jobs, and music journalists definitely have a strong case for a berth on the Golgafrincham B Ark), let’s just say that, true or not, it’s annoying. But at the risk of overanalysing the idea of overanalysis, I do sometimes wonder “What do you really mean by ‘You’re overanalysing this’?”

Because the same J-Pop and idol fans who are likely to accuse someone like me of overanalysing pop music are people who when I occasionally visit their web forums are engaged in discussions that provoke a very similar “You’re overanalysing this” reaction in me. In this sense, it seems to me that the phrase “You’re overanalysing this” really means something closer to “You’re analysing this in a way that I personally find troubling and/or alienating.”

I think in the case of J-Pop and especially idol music, it comes down to the base assumption that discussion works off. Fan discussions treat as a baseline the idea that idols are real human beings and that what is presented to you is real. They may know that it isn’t really real, but the discussion is carried out within the confines of the narrative. They analyse the lyrics and ask themselves, “What do these lyrics express about the singer’s personality, hopes, dreams, etc.?” in the same way that fans of a TV soap might discuss the characters and their lives. The discussion can get very detailed, picking up on all manner of little effects or elements of the music or other related products. It also irritates me in the same way Wikipedia articles on some anime annoy me, where they start speculating about inconsistencies in a show by saying, “It can be suggested that Character A did this unexplained and illogical thing because of Reason X” when I just want to bang my head against the table and scream, “NO, YOU IDIOT! Character A did this unexplained and illogical thing because the writer did a shitty job!” — the need to explain everything “in-narrative” is a habit of fan culture that draws a lot of brain power into creating tortured explanations for things that have really simple explanations when you step outside of the bubble.

The reason I get the reaction that these people are overanalysing it is I think because this base assumption that these are real people funnels the analysis into areas that I tend to see as irrelevant. My baseline for any discussion of J-Pop or idol music is that everything is artificial and the girls dancing at the front are in many ways the least important element of the whole process. It’s not quite that simple, and you can kind of see with the better artists like Kyary Pamyupamyu, Perfume, Momoiro Clover Z and others that there is some synthesis between the performer and the production, but basically, I tend to discuss it all in terms of the mechanics. To return to the TV show analogy, my approach would be like analysing a drama from the point of view of narrative structure (three acts, mid-point crisis, etc.), genre studies, that sort of thing. The people on screen are characters in a holistic product that has been designed by others, and the actors themselves are simply another aspect of the production. This probably takes a lot of the fun out of it for a lot for fans.

With J-Pop and idol music, these two positions are a bit confused because the character and the actor are the same person. A lot of fan discussion takes this as axiomatic, whereas I treat it more as an actor playing a version of themself (like, say, Jerry Seinfeld or something) while maintaining a separation between the person and the role. In any case, I think the key point isn’t so much that one side or the other is analysing something too much as that the two sides are analysing it using different sets of tools and based on different sets of assumptions. Were I less of a gentleman than I am, I would note at this point that my way is correct and better, but that would be mean, so I shan’t.

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BiS-kaidan: Suki Suki Daisuki

I honestly don’t know what to make of this. In a way, it’s a dream come true and a thrilling, joyous example of the kind of thing idol music, at least in its more nominally alternative fringes should be doing, but on another level, it’s just yet another in a long line of examples, from Dempagumi Inc. doing The Beastie Boys to Negicco working with Yasuharu Konishi, of alternative or alternative-ish music (and in particular alternative culture nostalgia) being co-opted by the idol marketing format.

Because for all the undoubted fun there is to be had with BiS, despite their superficial sheen of trance and metal influences, their every move is so transparently calculated that one can’t help feeling a bit dirtied by contact with it. Which of course then loops back into part of what makes them so interesting: what they reveal about the process of idol manufacture and their shamelessness about wearing it on their sleeves — not so much heavy metal as heavy meta (thanks, I’m here all week).

So what is this that we’re looking at? Well, basically it’s idol quintet BiS shrieking along in their heavily autotuned voices to an old Jun Togawa song while legendary noiseniks and all-round bodily fluid fans Hijokaidan create the most horrendous sounds they possibly can around it. These elements together should basically be a good thing. In my blog earlier in the year where I picked apart the influence of idol music on the alternative and underground scenes, I pointed out that any truly subversive idol would look more like Jun Togawa than any of the stuff currently on display, although the fact that BiS have even gone as far as to dress up as Togawa in the video suggests that they may be missing the point a little.BiS-kaidan: Suki Suki Daisuki

More than that, I think what we’re seeing here is the application of otaku “database” principles to music. Each of these three elements — the idol group, the noise band, the off-kilter pop artist — are combined here in a basically two-dimensional database fashion, like an otaku fan-product mixing and matching fetish elements to create a new character for maximum moé appeal.

The result of this is that each element exists independently within the work: there is no sum of the parts that is greater than its individual elements. Hijokaidan bring the sense of danger and violence, Togawa brings a fucking great song (both bring a bunch of old punk/new wave dudes going, “Wow, that’s so coooool!”), and BiS bring… well, they bring five young girls and the marketing power of a major label.

So what does it mean? Well, I’m still not convinced BiS mean anything apart from making money for Avex. As a pop group, they can always retort with, “It’s pop music: it’s not supposed to mean anything!” but the more they adopt the external trappings of alternative music, the more questions like that start to matter, not just for idol music but for the alternative scene that seems so happy to have been suddenly colonised by all these sweet, charming and pliant young girls. When the sounds of underground and alternative music can be so easily co-opted by idol production machines, what is it that alternative music offers that actually makes it an alternative? Is it really just a sound that can be picked up and used by anyone, or is there still an ethos that runs deeper than that?

So to go back to my opening remarks, I still don’t know what to make of this. It’s doing something extreme within idol music, for which I applaud it, but it’s doing so by applying quite a superficial, otaku-ish “combine-the-elements” approach and playing off the back of a certain type of punk/new wave nostalgia, which is a scene whose ethos has perhaps fossilised to the point where I suspect it might have more in common with idol music these days than any kind of living, breathing underground/alternative scene. Perhaps a metaphor I used back in my post in February is the closest to describing the effect this track has on me: It’s a thrill, but it’s the thrill you get from a sugar rush and gone in a second. I enjoy the fact of its existence, but it also makes me uncomfortable, and i think it leaves both the idol and underground scenes with a lot of unanswered questions.Jun Togawa: Suki Suki Daisuki

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Sayuu: Kappa

One of the bands generating excited whispers from those in the know amongst Tokyo’s underground music scene at the moment is this new wave-influenced garage-punk duo. The iciness with which audiences in Tokyo often treat new bands isn’t necessarily meant in an unfriendly way so much as that the only gigs a lot of new bands can get are weekday bookings where all or most of the bands are paying the venue for the privilege of playing and the friends or fans of one band have rarely heard of any of the other bands on the bill. The result is a small cluster of people feeling a bit awkward in a room much too big for them, surrounded by people they don’t know very well, so naturally the responses the bands evoke tend to range from polite applause down to dead silence.

One thing a band can do is to just say “arigatou” after each song as a cue to the audience that it’s OK to clap now. Audiences respond well to this, it makes them feel comfortable. The wonderful Living Astro quietly acknowledge the ends of their songs with no more than an embarrassed smile to the audience and a little nod, but this subtle cue is usually enough. Another approach is to revel in the audience’s discomfort and give them no cues as to how to behave whatsoever. Extruders seem to do this, and Sayuu do it in spades.Sayuu: Kappa

The stop-start nature of Sayuu’s music makes it hard to know when one song has finished and a new one is about to begin, so the band’s refusal to acknowledge the end of a track just adds to the discomfort. It also adds to the excitement in a certain way, giving a sense that the band are refusing to talk down to you, refusing to spoonfeed you. It tells you that they’re not going to make things easy and that they expect you to keep up. There’s a dry sort of humour to the way they present themselves and music that combines simple base elements in a complex, nontraditional way. The kazoo opening suggests a sort of snotty punk childishness, while the closest thing the song has to a chorus is a pretty simple garage rock riff over a stumbling rhythm. A lot of the music, however, revolves around treating all the instruments from drums up to vocal as pieces of percussion, which gives the whole song a taut, jittery edginess. As I said, these guys are being talked about a lot in the local underground scene, so expect to hear more from them.

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Quit Your Band!

Slow posting this month and last month has been partly due to event preparations but mostly due to something called Quit Your Band!, a Japanese-language punk/indie zine I’ve been putting together with Ryotaro Aoki from Don’t Cross The Streams and my darling wife Kaname.

Quit Your Band!

I’m not going to go into loads of detail about the content but it covers a lot of the same stuff I write about here in English and one of the articles is a slightly updated translation of my Nakigao Twintail/idol music post from earlier in the year so Japanese readers can get their knickers in a twist over a willfully misinterpreted reading of my argument just like their squealing overseas brethren. It also includes a Japanese version of my interview with the Extruders and various original articles and art contributions.

The other thing it includes is Mir’s new mini-album Я не могу без тебя (“Ya ne mogu bez tebya”, or “I can’t live without you”) in its entirety. As I’ve mentioned before, Mir were one of the first bands I released on Call And Response and so it’s fitting to feature them with the first issue of the zine.

Anyway, the zines, CDs and jacket artwork all arrived in time and we’ve finished packaging it all up. Releasing a new CD always feels satisfying, but releasing a new CD as part of something that we’ve all had creative input into is a very different feeling. Creating a physical paper zine feels so different to blogging or even writing for the newspaper as well. The release party is in about half a day and if it goes off even a tenth as well as the show with Hyacca last month, it’ll be a great welcome for the new zine.

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