One of this web site’s top albums of last year was Buddy Girl and Mechanic’s eponymous debut, and it’s heartening that they’ve been able to follow it up so quickly (or at least what passes for quickly in the Japanese indie world). While a lot remains consistent with before, with the blues-inflected melodies combined with an obvious love of krautrock, and vocalist Xiroh’s habit of suddenly squeaking like a 1960s secretary who’s just been touched on the bottom by a roguish co-worker. However, the transition from the bands debut to Topsy Turvy is far from seamless, and it’s clear a lot’s been going on in the studio in the interim. While Buddy Girl and Mechanic was characterised by expansive, reverb-drenched sonic vistas, Topsy Turvy is a far more claustrophobic album, with the group’s “Mechanic” aspect expressing itself in the clockwork clinks, clanks, rattles and creaks of songs like Mechanic Nonsense and Cat’s Scratching, and the tightly compressed drums of the Circe’s Kitchen. Rather than all blending together into one sultry sunset soup as the 2013 model BGM did, the band’s 2014 incarnation sets each sound scrapping it out in a closet.
One effect of this more claustrophobic production is that where in the past Xiroh’s vocals have tended to be indistinct in the reverb and overdubs, here they are occasionally pushed closer to the surface, as on the title track. Language can often be a problem for Japanese acts as the needs, expectations and interpretations of domestic and overseas audiences can lead to very different responses. Most obviously this lies in comprehension, where Japanese is obviously easier to understand for Japanese audiences and English for those in many other places. Differences also lie in how exotic or fashionable a language can make something sound, and how the inflection the singer places on the words can affect the impression they make. The vocals on Topsy Turvy are in a mixture of English and Japanese, processed through a variety of effects, sometimes in the group’s familiar distant and abstract manner, sometimes right close up in the listener’s ear. Now where a group like Shonen Knife make a virtue out of the naïvety of their English pronunciation, Buddy Girl aren’t that sort of band. The persona Xiroh projects is more adult, more vampish, and this lends an odd sense of not-quite-rightness to the English language material, where the naturalistic and the obviously foreign grate against each other.
And yet break it down and there’s nothing intrinsically wrong going on in their either. Topsy Turvy kicks off with a song that purrs its desire to “make it nonsense” and is an album constructed entirely of sounds and ideas designed to clash against each other. Release the Fish sets what sounds like a sanshin, an instrument primarily associated with Okinawan folk music, against a song that’s comes over like one big sexual come-on, while closing track Nature/Property takes all the grinding gears, tensing wires and general “mechanic nonsense” that have clattered through the album and builds an ambient psychedelic crescendo around them before releasing it all into a throbbing, motorik conclusion that lasts for about a minute but could have gone on for about twenty.
So amid all this wilful chaos, does something coherent emerge? Well, firstly I’m not sure it really needs to, and secondly yes it does. Aside from the obvious point that the thematic clash of elements that runs through the album is in itself a point of consistency, the group also never let it sabotage the songs. “The melody, it’s my remedy,” is the opening track’s response to the “nonsense” it professes to promote, and while Buddy Girl and Mechanic play the mischief makers, they’re fundamentally a band very much like Can in that the fun and games is always set in service of the greater musical good.