Monthly Archives: January 2014

Top 20 Releases of 2013: No.9 – Puffyshoes – Puffyshoes

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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Top 20 Releases of 2013: No.10 – Capsule – Caps Lock

Caps Lock

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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Top 20 Releases of 2013: No.11 – Nisennenmondai – N


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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Top 20 Releases of 2013: No.12 – Jesse Ruins – A Film

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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Guardian Song of the Week: Seiko Oomori, “Midnight Seijun Isei Kouyuu”

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.

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Top 20 Releases of 2013: No.13 – BP. – The New BP.

The New BP.

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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Top 20 Releases of 2013: No.14 – V/A – Dead Funny Compilation Vol.1

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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Top 20 Releases of 2013: No.15 – Umiuma – Kaiba

This debut album by Sendai indie-jazz-prog trio Umiuma combines skittering drums, intricate, kaleidescopic guitar, and sweet, off-kilter vocal melodies, with arrangements that swing wildly between technical, tightly focussed, rhythmically complex instrumental segments, bursts of sheer rock-out energy and moments of sheer, blissful pop. At the poppiest extreme there’s Kangaroo, a quirky melody reminiscent of 1960s French pop, built around a fairly conventional chord pattern, with Masumi Horiya’s vocals coming on like Kahimi Karie. Kiiroi Michi and opening track Era see the band playing with more dissonant and dynamic elements, while most songs combine all these elements to varying degrees. For all their technical prowess, however, Umiuma are never self indulgent. Most of the songs on Kaiba hover around a restrained two or three minutes in length, but the group’s boundless, restless energy ensures that each of them is packed with ideas and sweet surprises. Guitarist Yuhi Kanda might rely a little too much on one particular, clean guitar sound where the use of a wider range of effects would serve the overall texture of the album better, and bringing the male band members for backing vocals at certain points would bring another element into the dynamic, but speculating about what else the band might include shouldn’t detract from the rich tapestry of sounds, musical ideas and melodies that is already here. Kaiba is a thrilling ride.

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Top 20 Releases of 2013: No.16 – Jesus Weekend – Agleam


CD, Fancy That!, 2013

One of the most fascinating and hard-to-categorise bands to emerge over the past year or so has been Osaka’s Jesus Weekend. Once I’d got over my disappointment that they weren’t a gospel-themed Vampire Weekend tribute group, what I discovered was a lo-fi band playing a mixture of fragile, low-key guitar pop songs and mysterious synth instrumentals. I’ve heard them compared to Stereolab, Broadcast and Laika, although given that the band’s members would have been in pre-school when those bands were making waves, a direct influence seems tenuous. At first glance it seems half-formed and untidy, but you find yourself coming back anyway as the depth and richness in ideas can’t help but filter through.

The two sides of Jesus Weekend’s sound are best illustrated by the sparkling, guitar-driven, whisper-voiced indiepop of Puberty Bell and the eerie John Carpenter soundtrack soundalike of Animal Suicides, with the opening Virgin acting as the nexus, the central node that demonstrates both sensibilities and spins them off in their respective directions. Agleam is a mysterious album and Jesus Weekend are a mysterious band. After listening you may be none the wiser about what lies beneath, but successive visits to their world are no less compelling for that.

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Top 20 Releases of 2013: No.17 – Perfume – Level3


CD, Universal Japan, 2013

Perfume albums have for a while now been basically collections of singles strung together with a few filler tracks and B-sides without much sense of cohesion, and it’s easy to see with Level3 how this album’s length, track listing and timing were determined by the same set of commercial demands. Where Level3 stands out is in how despite these constraints, producer Yasutaka Nakata works the material together into a form that actually feels like a proper album. The last couple of albums have seen the increasing use of album mixes of older tracks, although on Level3’s predecessor JPN the mixes were largely unnecessary and on the earlier Triangle they were interesting more as discrete items than as part of the album’s larger context. Here, the three reworked tracks are cornerstones that dictate the pace and rhythm of the album, in particular the new versions of Spring of Life and Magic of Love that kick off a run of tracks that recalls the relentless dance party of Capsule’s World of Fantasy, climaxing in the monstrous monument to hedonism that is Party Maker, just one of many “how the hell did they get away with that?” moments that the album offers.Perfume: 1mm

There are missteps like the way the cutesy kids’ song Mirai no Museum kills the flow of the aforementioned run of party tracks, and Point is still a musical atrocity no matter what anyone says, although pairing it up with Furikaeru to Iru yo was a smart move that limits its damage to the album as a whole. These bum notes are far overwhelmed by the quality of the whole though. Like all the best albums, Level3 has two sides irrespective of its actual physical format (at 65 minutes it wouldn’t fit on a single piece of vinyl anyway) with the more subdued second side emphasising the kind of sophisticated pop with retro-futurist faux-Asiatic elements that have increasingly coloured much of Nakata’s pop songwriting and strongly recall the work of Ryuichi Sakamoto, particularly in album closer Dream Land. It’s too long but we all know how to use the programme and skip functions if we need to and in any case, that shouldn’t detract from this being the best J-Pop album by an easy margin in a year that, in the also Nakata-produced Kyary Pamyu Pamyu album and strong albums by Momoiro Clover Z and Sakanaction, gave us a surprisingly strong field of mainstream records.

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