This no-fi duo bade us farewell in 2013 with a typically DIY valedictory statement, releasing an album on a self-titled, self-released double cassette, with slightly different versions of exactly the same track list on each tape. It was made available through the band’s web site and a handful of live performances before the band unhelpfully imploded, sputtering to a close a couple of months before their planned end — but then Puffyshoes were never a band to do something they didn’t feel like out of a sense of mere professionalism.Puffyshoes: Matilda
There’s a contradiction at the heart of Puffyshoes’ music, which at once affects to be confessional and intimate, but at the same time exists in a fantasy world where the band are forever living in a faintly unreal teenage fantasy of dream lovers, infused with the innocence of 60s girl group harmonies and ramshackle 70s punk energy. Puffyshoes fall in love so many times throughout the course of the album and yet for all they they seem to be playing characters, there’s a level at which you suspect they half believe it’s true, and this tension inherent in the illusion that is so alluring that it should be real gives the album its sense of genuinely affecting, fragile yearning. Don’t Wake Me Up, they cry, and they mean it.Puffyshoes: I’m in Love with a Boy from USA
The songwriting follows along lines that will be familiar to anyone who knows the group (or anyone who knows the also recently departed Vivian Girls), but the songwriting is better than anything they’ve so far released, adding an extra tinge of regret to their passing. Tonight is built round a dirty riff straight out of The Creeps’ Down at the Nightclub but overlaying it with honey-sweet harmonies, Why is just the most beautiful, simple, plaintive melody they’ve ever done, while I’m in Love with a Boy from USA and the frankly pretty silly I Wanna be Your Shoe are joyous one-minute bursts of headbanging punk. You can dip into the album anywhere and come out with something equally gorgeous though. Given Puffyshoes penchant for splitting up and reforming on a pretty much biannual basis, don’t bet against them making a comeback at some point in the future, but at the moment that seems unlikely and this album is a jubilant, heartbreaking memorial.Puffyshoes: Goodbye to You
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CD/Download, Warner Music Japan, 2013
I’ve already written a lot about this album, so regular readers will know that I love it and think it’s one of the most exciting things Yasutaka Nakata has done in a long time. To drop a genuinely experimental record like this in the middle of a year when his work with Kyary Pamyu Pamyu and Perfume was scaling ever greater commercial and creative heights was a surprise and one that seems to have left a lot of fans scratching their heads or just outright disgusted. It was certainly a poke in the eye to those Capsule fans who seem to wish the group was just an idol project built around Toshiko Koshijima; it avoids obvious dance beats, instead exploring the possibilities of sampling and layered loops, cutting and splicing Toshiko’s vocals like a Vocaloid voice synth.
The key track to unlocking what Nakata is doing with Caps Lock is the six-minute 12345678, a track that sets itself up with a defiantly irritating klaxon loop and then challenges you to find musicality in the shifting layers of sounds underneath. Get that track and the whole rest of the album falls into place. Control and Shift are the closest things to traditional Capsule pop songs, while closing Return sounds like a cross between a Jo Hisaishi Ghibli soundtrack and a Ryuichi Sakamoto instrumental work, suggesting that there might be a high profile Hollywood film soundtrack in Nakata somewhere should the opportunity arise.
Caps Lock is also the most Shibuya-kei thing Nakata has done in years, with Cornelius an obvious point of comparison. It’s short at only about 35 minutes, but after the excesses of Perfume’s (also excellent) Level3, that economy makes a nice contrast, ensuring Caps Lock is a tight, fully-formed package in its own right. Clever, imaginative, fun and still at its heart pop, Caps Lock doesn’t so much take you on a journey as lay out a musical landscape before you and leave you to explore it by yourself, and the result is the best album released by a major label in 2013.
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CD, Bijin Record, 2013
Nisennenmondai are in the admirable position of being both an intensely desirable band with numerous overseas tours behind them and support slots for a number of high profile touring bands (most recently the UK’s Savages), and also being able to do pretty much whatever they want, keeping close control over their own recording output and largely able to pick and choose which shows they play domestically. From their raucous, anarchic beginnings in the mid-2000s, new album N sees the trio’s sound honed down beyond the bare bones, right to the pulsating marrow.Nisennenmondai: A (live)
To the point actually where you could argue that all three tracks on N are essentially the same, but then given that the band have titled them simply A, B-1 and B-2, they’re obviously meant to be taken as part of a piece, with N really best considered a coherent whole rather than a collection of tracks. And N as a whole, is a relentless but strangely low-key spacerock disco, all tracks in the twelve-fourteen minute zone, giving them time to build up to something just short of a climax before fading away into something else. Guitarist Masako Takada is becoming more adept year by year at creating textures and soundscapes, while Yuri Zaikawa is a man-machine on bass, making more than you’d imagine possible out of her different ways of playing the same note over and over again.
It’s also the best job Nisennenmondai have ever done of making what they do work on record. Perhaps the way they have jettisoned the more explosive elements of their music and honed their sound down to this tense, taut, jittery trance beat (Can you have a jittery trance? Apparently yes!) creates fewer challenges than capturing the raw energy of the band’s earlier material. Instead N comes over as a piece of dance music, more level and consistent in the mix, less prone to wild changes in sound levels and tempo. Fans of the band’s blistering early material may miss some of that energy, but what they’ve left behind in that regard, they’ve gained in terms of focus.Nisennenmondai: B-2 (live)
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Since the breakout success of the sweeping, hallucinatory Dream Analysis, Jesse Ruins have been one of the hottest bands in the Japanese indie scene, and one of the few to make any real impact overseas. With Dream Analysis now a distant memory, the group, centred around main songwriter and producer Nobuyuki Sakuma, has come up with a full length album that shows a growing maturity, confidence and musical cohesion
Laura is Fading kicks the album off in a familiar way, with the driving rhythm, dreamlike vocals and waves of synths a sound that still anchors the group’s musical identity. But A Film is more than a honing of what we already know Jesse Ruins can do: it’s a development of that sound into an album context, drawing on Sakuma’s cinematic obsessions to work it into a wider, abstract musical narrative with ebbs, flows, a climax and a resolution.
One way Sakuma seems to have diversified the sound is by drawing on material from his darker, more industrial Cold Name side project. Sharon is Frozen is built around a brutal, monotonous EBM synth pulse like DAF at their most unforgiving, with Nah’s vocals emotionlessly intoning the indistinct lyrics. Echoes of an earlier generation of German electronic rock can be heard in the Kraftwerkian chimes that run through Fausta, and in more subtle ways, these more mechanical, industrial elements infuse more typically Jesse Ruins-style songs like Leonard’s Polaroid & Memo (Hera Type2).
And like a good film soundtrack, those familiar elements keep returning, in part or in whole, throughout the album: to soaring effect on the centrepiece track Sleepless in Tokyo, climactic effect on The Red Part of the Thin Line, disconcerting effect on Before Dawn, where the chiming synth melody os almost drowned out by the ruthless bass wobble. A Film closes with Valentine at 2am, either a sweet lullaby or the soundtrack to waking gently from a night of turbulent dreams, but in any case a perfect coda to a fine album from a band who keep growing in stature.
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This week’s pickup for The Guardian’s music from around the world guest blogging series is a new song by an artist who crosses boundaries between subcultures and is now starting to get mainstream attention too. Seiko Oomori: Midnight Seijun Isei Kouyuu
Between the dirty basements of the underground scene and the sparkly fantasyland of idol music there is a genuine area of crossover. Both are essentially subcultures, cut off in slightly different ways from the mainstream of Japanese pop culture, and there has been a growth in recent years of fans who are not into indie or idol music per se but are more accurately defined as fans of subculture in general. Perhaps recognising this, it’s become a common sight to find idol singers adopting elements of indie and underground culture, be it the noise collaborations of BiS, the indie covers of Dempagumi inc. or the proliferation of indie musicians working as songwriters and producers in the idol scene.
The rise of Seiko Oomori is evidence that the trade goes two ways. A singer-songwriter rooted deeply in the darkest, dirtiest depths of the underground scene in the Koenji district of Tokyo (the video for Midnight Seijun Isei Kouyuu sees her performing the song in Koenji’s legendary and legendarily weird Muryoku Muzenji live space), she has increasingly adopted the posture of an idol singer to deliver her off-kilter narratives, even going so far as performing at the 2013 Tokyo Idol Festival. Midnight Seijun Isei Kouyuu demonstrates her spanning of those two worlds, with the electronic, technopop-influenced arrangement replacing her previous acoustic guitar-orientated setup, but breaking down into squalls of noise as the song reaches its mid-point. Oomori’s fusion of sweet, bubblegum elements with occasionally tortured delivery emphasises the darkness and obsession that lurk under the candy-coloured surface, and in this way she has a lot in common with 80s singer Jun Togawa, who also appropriated elements of idol culture and contorted them to more dissonant ends. Whether Oomori has Togawa’s self-awareness and acuity remains to be seen, but with Midnight Seijun Isei Kouyuu she has finally marked herself as one to watch for audiences beyond the cramped basements and lofts of Koenji.
CD, Meguro Records, 2013
The release of my Bloody Valentine’s first new album in more than twenty years seems to have given new impetus to Japan’s diverse shoegaze scene, elements of which had come together at round the same time to produce the Yellow Loveless MBV covers album. Less well-publicised it may have been, but another 90s comeback produced one of the year’s finest Japanese rock albums. BP. had been inactive for more than fifteen years when they burst back onto the scene with The New BP. and it’s a corker.BP.: Goodbye, Love
Now you suspect that BP. hate being called shoegaze, but within seconds of opening track Goodbye, Love, it’s clear that there’s still a lot of that going on with them. At the same time, however, yes, there’s more to them, with Tomato Bazooka revealing a post-hardcore side, Puddle occasionally exploding into bursts of metal, and the band throughout delighting in chopping between different rhythms or between melodic and ear splittingly noisy moments in a way that’s very much of a piece with the contemporary Tokyo underground scene. These transitions are all expertly handled in the mix by producer AxSxE from jazz-prog psychedelicists Natsumen, who is one of the best engineers in Japan at making impossibly loud guitars sound gorgeous, and the result is a texturally rich sonic treat for tired ears.
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2013 saw a glut of new indiepop and shoegaze releases, and many of those were on the new Fukuoka-based label Dead Funny Records. This compilation can in a way stand for all of them, featuring as it does pretty much all the movers and shakers (or “standers and starers” as the case may be) in the world of Japanese 80s throwback indie guitar music. Highlights abound but standing out above all others is the gorgeous The Blind by Fukuoka’s Hearsays, with a guitar riff that hints at Happy End’s Kaze wo Atsumete, simple, catchy and affecting vocals, and a faintly dissonant underlying chord sequence.
But pop nuggets abound in Dead Funny Compilation Vol.1, with further highlights being Jappers’ jangly, uptempo Give It, Talk’s opening In Refrain Refrain, Old Lacy Bed’s Little Girl and The Paellas’ reverbtastic Fall Even Further. On the more feedback-heavy side, Nagoya’s Pop-Office have a winner with the driving, fuzz-soaked End of the Summer, The Earth Earth are another standout with the punky Empty Boy rather less of an obvious and direct My Bloody Valentine ripoff than some of their other material, and Azma Shoegaze Explosion’s (now just known as Azma) immense Thousand Lights a mind-shattering gut-punch of sound. Not quite fitting into either category is the Nephogram by Fancy Books, with its synth-led arrangement and distant vocals giving the compilation a bit of unexpected but nonetheless welcome Trembling Blue Stars-style romance.
Many of the tracks are incredibly rough, with the mix of Half Sports’ entry in particular almost indecipherable, but in many cases this serves to simply emphasise the naive charm that is such a point of appeal for much of this kind of music.
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