Monthly Archives: November 2014

Strange Boutique (November 2014) — Aya Matsuura’s Mirror

My November column for The Japan Times was one of the occasional retrospective pieces I do, looking back at part of rock or pop history. This time I wrote about Aya Matsuura, who might lay claim to being the last great solo idol before the age of the group (and megagroup) took hold. It’s a thoroughly self-indulgent choice of topic, but I have no shame.

I don’t really talk about her music in the article because the main focus was on her as a star or a pop cultural artefact, but we can perhaps say that she was given access to the cream of Tsunku’s songwriting crop and tracks like Momoiro Kataomoi and Yeah! Meccha Holiday would be standout songs in any J-Pop singer’s canon. She had some fine tunes.

Her star persona is what interests me most though. When I was first discovering J-Pop after arriving in Japan in the early 2000s, Matsuura weirded me out. She was drop-dead gorgeous and through the mediating factor of the screen flirted outrageously with the viewer, but she remained utterly inaccessible — she was like some sort of perfect pop cyborg. At the time, that seemed deeply manipulative, and of course it was in a way, but compared to the way idols nowadays push their physical accessibility so hard, the screen for Matsuura was as much a shield as a medium, openly keeping an arm’s length between artist and audience. The same barrier exists with idols now, but much greater lengths are taken to conceal it and promote the illusion of intimacy, so Matsuura feels more honest. This also made her more like how I feel a pop star should be, and that distance, that air of otherness that she exuded, is key to her appeal (yes, I still have a massive crush on her!)

The point I make in the column about the almost monomaniacal focus on her alone in the videos was first raised by my flatmate at the time (the Emmy award-winning comedy writer Josiah Madigan, namedropping fans) who wondered if it represented in some way the sort of intense self-focus of the kind of teenage girls who we assumed were Matsuura’s main audience. I’m actually not really sure who her main audience was — she wasn’t really an otaku idol, but she wasn’t really a female style icon either — but that may have been part of it. Part of it may also have been a conscious counterpoint to her main contemporaries within the Hello! Project, the mass idol group Morning Musume. In any case, it creates a sometimes surreal, almost Freudian internal universe in which the dramas of her faintly comedic (ironic even?) songs play out.

In its simplest sense, we can see it in the miniature angel and devil Matsuuras in the video for debut single Dokki Doki! Love Mail who battle over the conscience of the giant-sized singer as she towers over the city, beamed from giant screens and dances over the buildings, or the fantasy of the homework robot double the video also plays with. Other videos take it way further though.

Tropical Koishiteru I mention in the article, and it features six different Matsuuras, competing against each other at tennis, officiating over the match, serving as ball girl, singing at the game and watching the match on TV. She competes against herself, judges the contest and observes from behind a screen. It’s a joke, but it’s a joke that serves to fragment her identity and deny easy access to the “real” her. If we take it as a narrative aimed at teenage girls, however, the fragmented identity it displays could be taken as a humorous reflection of their own unformed and confused identities and thus more “real” for its embracing of unreality — the screen not only as medium transmitting the message, and protection keeping audience and star apart, but also as mirror reflecting the fans’ own internal dilemmas back at them.

You can see this too in the video for 100kai no Kiss, where one Matsuura repeatedly undermines another’s attempts to contact a boy she likes, stopping time and rearranging her world just before the point of contact. In one sense this is a simple metaphor for the struggle between shyness and desire, but there is something in the “evil” Matsuura’s glance at the camera as she turns away to leave that suggests she has her own designs on the boy, raising the possibility that this more confident and powerful version of her has a life independent of the “real” Matsuura — rather like the two Golyadkins of Dostoevsky’s The Double, if you want to put a literary gloss on it. Again, this is at heart just a joke, but it’s a joke that fragments Matsuura’s identity. Where in Tropical Koishiteru, the “real” Matsuura is watching on TV as the fragments of herself compete behind the screen (and she cheers on her “good” self), here the bad girl Matsuura is a powerful independent being.

In Ne~e?, the whole internal struggle is flipped outwards and the question of who she should be becomes one she is asking the boy she likes (and by extension the fans). “Who do you want me to be?” “Which me would you prefer?” This is where you might get to a closer sense of the nature of Matsuura’s “screen” and an answer to the disconnect between her reflection of the “real” and her embracing of artifice. What it really depends on is whether the gaze that we cast upon her screen is male or female. To the male gaze she gives nothing of herself, only an endless series of hall-of-mirrors reflections featuring numerous versions of Aya Matsuura but bringing you no closer to the real thing, but to the (teenage) female gaze she gives a reflection of their own struggle to form a coherent identity in the face of competing internal and external pressures and demands. In Ne~e?, Matsuura confronts this disconnect directly: “Yeah, I am many things, because it is you who demands that I be so.”

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Call And Response Distribution: New arrivals from Half Sports and You Got A Radio

There are some new arrivals in the Call And Response online store now. As with the first batch of CDs I got in stock, they are all loosely in a postpunk/new wave sort of zone, but each offers something a bit different and again, all of them are bands I personally rate and am happy to recommend.

You can access the shop here.

Call And Response Records

The three new CDs are (click the photos to go to each CD’s page in the Call And Response Store):

You Got A Radio

You Got A Radio

New wave/postpunk band You Got A Radio’s self-titled 2010 debut album. You Got A Radio are mainstays of the Japanese postpunk/new wave scene and through their Tokyo Noise events have done a lot to support other bands in a similar vein. This album is pretty much the definitive recorded document of their sound, and it’s fun, spiky and energetic, striking a balance between art-punk and offbeat pop.

Slice Of Our City

Slice Of Our City

Half Sports’ debut Slice Of Our City was one of this site’s best albums of 2012 and it still with all the benefits of hindsight resonates with the same unbridled energy and outright tuneful joy. Released through You Got A Radio’s Drriill label, it’s also another example of the way one band’s support of their peers can produce creative dividends.

Mild Elevation

Mild Elevation

Mild Elevation is Half Sports’ 2014 follow-up to Slice Of Our City, and it retains the same confidence with a catchy melody and an anthemic chorus, but this time sees the band incorporating slightly more psychedelic pop elements.

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Strange Boutique (October 2014) – Reviews: The Mornings, “Idea Pattern”; Halbach, “Halbach”; Otori, “I Wanna Be Your Noise”

For my October column in The Japan Times, I wrote about skronk in Japan. There was a sort of twin focus, with the article functioning on two layers. The first was a sort of meta-discussion about the language we as writers use when talking about music. It was all very clever and interesting, so go over to The Japan Times web site and have a read now.

The second layer, as you should have noticed by now, was that there was a sort of freak confluence of albums by some of Japan’s skronkiest artists released over the period of about a week at the end of last month, which is kind of the hook I used to justify writing the column in the first place and the springboard for the whole discussion of skronk and language. Now if at this point you’re scratching your head and asking, “Yeah, but what’s skronk?” then you haven’t read the original article. Go do that now.

Those releases were Idea Pattern by The Mornings, the self-titled, self-released debut album by Halbach, and I Wanna Be Your Noise by Otori. Since the publication of my column, I’ve had time to listen properly to all of those albums, so as an addendum to the original piece, here’s a series of short reviews of each album.

Idea Pattern

CD, Hariental, 2014

The Mornings’ 2011 debut album Save The Mornings was a rocket powered rollercoaster of an album, but you can only make your debut album once and it’s clear that they’ve moved on in the three years it’s taken them to come up with Idea Pattern. It opens with Fuji, which is very much in the pattern of the first album, but as the album progresses, a growing preoccupation with sonic texture and the interplay between the three vocalists becomes clear. The tempos have been brought down and there is a greater emphasis on melodies, although the melodies are themselves employed more as a textural element to be dropped in and out at will than part of a coherent, classically structured song.

In fact the overwhelming impression of Idea Pattern is of music that has been written along the lines of electronic music rather than rock. To return to the theme of skronk that kicked this whole thing off, this is really an extension of something that is part of skronk’s nature. Because of the atonal nature of the guitar sound that characterises skronk, that causes a deliberate disruption to any attempts to make a classically melodic pop song in the mode of, say The Monkees or Sex Pistols. Most skronk isn’t completely freeform though, and so what the no wave and postpunk bands did to ensure their music was internally consistent was focus on the rhythm, incorporating influences from dance music.

What The Mornings and many other bands do is take this a step further and start fucking up and disrupting the rhythms as well, and combined with the way Idea Pattern brings the bass closer to the top of the mix, it’s easy to imagine that the group were influenced in some way by the beats and drops of dubstep, albeit filtered through a decidedly art-punk lens. It’s music that revels in its inconsistency, delighting in twisting the listener this way and that, but while Save The Mornings seemed set on doing this on sheer force of will alone, Idea Pattern seems to be attempting to tap into a more generalised kind of energy, letting itself be carried along on grooves, floating on airwaves. It still does this within a structure of mathematical precision, but it’s a fascinating attempt – a parallel in music of what Mondrian’s Broadway Boogie Woogie did in the visual arts – to reconcile the band’s distinctly non-organic style with a kind of natural rhythm they find around them.

Halbach

CD, Abel, 2014

Halbach’s eponymous debut album is a mess. This is fine, because Halbach themselves are a mess and anything else just wouldn’t be them. Collected together from a mixture of studio and live recordings spanning a couple of years and a number of member changes, this album may leave you a little confused about what sort of band they are, but at the same time it gives you a pretty accurate picture of what kind of band they are. I’m saying they’re a confusing band.

Like The Mornings, there’s an obvious influence of electronic music on their approach, filtered through some similar postpunk, avant-garde and hardcore influences, but while The Mornings are fastidiously mathematical, Halbach are more expressionist in their approach – if The Mornings are Mondrian, Halbach are Kandinsky. They lay out their intentions with the sprawling, distortion-laden psychedelic noise groove of Flux Capacitor, before launching into the growling, Stooges-with-turntable-scratching hardcore of Norway.

That sets the tone for most of the rest of the album, with flurries of junk noise that combine the devilish revelling in sonic vomit of early Boredoms with the bubblegum hardcore aesthetic of Melt Banana, shot threw with a meandering love of dance music and dirty garage rock riffs. The curveball comes at the end, with the live tracks Bass and Thara cap off the album with a series of spiralling NDW/EBM-style sequencer patterns that they then proceed to mutilate – but never completely destroy – with feedback. If this is where the band are now, it’s an intriguing place to be and could become a platform for something really special in the future.

I Wanna Be Your Noise

CD, Gyuune Cassette, 2014

Otori’s I Wanna Be Your Noise is another debut album, and like Halbach it collects material spanning several years – anyone with even a passing familiarity to their live performances, demos and compilation appearances over the past few years will be very much at home with the songs on this album. Where it really is the absolute opposite of Halbach is in how tightly honed and consistent in tone and overall sound it it all is. This is partly due to the way Otori recorded all the songs anew specifically for this release, but more than that it’s in how, just as Halbach’s chaotic mess of a record is a reflection of their own anarchic quality, I Wanna Be Your Noise is a product of Otori’s own laser-guided focus.

Unlike both The Mornings and Halbach, Otori are much more firmly rooted in the sonic vocabulary of the 1970s New York no wave and there is no obvious influence of dance music (at least of the electronic variety), but sonically it is every bit as skronky and atonal, and as a result, it still relies a lot on guitar texture and rhythm to give the songs their core dynamic. In fact through its own propulsive, singleminded rhythmical brutality, I Wanna Be Your Noise is probably the most purely dance-orientated album of the three albums under discussion here. In its guitar sound, it’s every bit as explosive and exploratory as The Mornings and Halbach, but where the former’s approach is layered and the latter’s is unhinged and anarchic, Otori’s guitar parts are a work of crisp, clear, almost surgical violence, deployed with a mixture of pinpoint precision and unashamed virtuosity.

All three albums are well worth checking out and showcase the depth of the talent pool that still exists in the underground and alternative scene of Tokyo. Taken together with a slew of other terrific new releases this year from Convex Level, Panicsmile, Buddy Girl and Mechanic, Hangaku and more, 2014 is shaping up to be a rather fine vintage for underground music in a postpunk/new wave vein.

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Umez: Umez

Umez

CD, 14 Years Records, 2014

Noise-pop duo Umez’ first album has been eagerly awaited around these parts, and while most of the material on display here should be pretty familiar to anyone who’s been following the band’s online output over the past couple of years, to have it all ricocheting about in one place provides a great opportunity to take a look at the band’s confusion of drum’n’bass, lo-fi indie-punk, dreampop, noise and J-Pop as a (barely) unified package.

Opening with a clatter of beats and squalls of chainsaw noise, the album quickly launches into the Supercar-esque Good Bye My Friend followed by the garage-punk pop anthem Rainbow. Contained in both these otherwise pretty comfortably indie tracks, however, lie hints at Umez’ tendency to fuck things up, with strangled guitar solos occasionally emerging out of the murk in the former and the latter breaking down into a throbbing, electro-psychedelic interlude part way through. In Lingering Dream the drum’n’bass beat complicates things still further, and by the time we reach Z-Fighters II, we’re deep into Fad Gadget minimal electro territory, albeit with a melody that sounds like a Christmas carol.

In fact the two most jarring elements of Umez’ music which run throughout the album are the vocal melodies which, when the noise and lo-fi fuzz are stripped away, are always shamelessly pop in the way only J-Pop or children’s songs can really be, and the guitar parts which always threaten to launch into madly soloing stadium rock as they do on Black Cat. At every point, Umez refuse to conform to accepted standards of either indie cool or pop commercialism, which makes their music both unsettling as well as providing a thrilling tension between the various elements as they struggle together within the songs. We’ve seen this tendency to career back and forth between seemingly unrelated styles and moods in the way the band compiled their own 14 Years Records’ compilation album International Pop Underground Sounds (Sickness of a Fourteen Year Old Girl ) Vol.1 last year, and this self-titled debut album shows that this is reflected every bit as much in their own music.

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Getting hold of indie CDs from Japan — Call And Response Distribution

In the course of writing this blog, I occasionally get messages asking where people can get hold of the music I review, and while Bandcamp has been a wonderful thing in facilitating distribution of indie music all over the world and giving listeners the opportunity to pay bands and labels the bare minimum they actually deserve for their work, there is still a lot of music where the answer is simply, “Japan. If you’re lucky.”

In the past there have been attempts by indie music entrepreneurs to set up online distribution systems for Japanese music in the form of music download stores, but from conversations I’ve had with they’ve tended to run into problems firstly with the fan community, as new releases instantly get shared over fan forums with sales dropping to zero within just a few days, and secondly with record labels, as especially major labels but also many indies, can be exceptionally fussy and controlling over their product, to the point where it becomes more of a hassle than it’s worth to work with them.

A third problem, at least from my subjective position, is that these stores have tried too hard to give fans what they want. From a business perspective of course this makes obvious sense, but honestly, fans of Japanese music as a collective group have pretty horrible taste. I’m utterly opposed to any music business model that involves following what the audience wants (as a non-coincidental adjunct to that, I’m also deeply suspicious of any music business model that makes money). People have got way to used to the notion that “the customer is always right” and are well on the way to embracing the Japanese notion that “the customer is God”. This is questionable at the best of times because it devalues the workers’ experience and rights, and it’s especially inappropriate in the world of the arts.

Now I love so much music in the Japanese indie and underground scenes, and I want people to hear it, so since I already have an online storefront for selling my own label’s CDs, it was easy enough to expand the store to include a Distribution section where I can make available some of the music I write about on this site. I shan’t be selling downloads — that’s up to bands to decide and set up for themselves — and I shan’t be dealing with any record labels that give me even the faintest hint of hassle. All music I make available will be from local Japanese artists and labels I’ve personally selected and recommend, so make sure to adjust your taste filters accordingly.

You can access the shop here.

Call And Response Records

There are currently four CDs available.

Buddy Girl and Mechanic: Buddy Girl and Mechanic

Buddy Girl and Mechanic

First up is Buddy Girl and Mechanic’s sexy, psychedelic, kraut-blues debut, which I raved about last year and was one of my top releases of 2013. Not much I can add to what I’ve already written about this other than that it’s great and that they’re an utterly singular and compelling band, unique in the Japanese indie music scene.

Buddy Girl and Mechanic: Topsy Turvy

Topsy Turvy

Also available is Topsy TurvyBuddy Girl and Mechanic’s second mini album from this summer (which I wrote about here). A more intricate and claustrophobic record than the band’s eponymous debut, it expands the range of sounds they play with while retaining the interplay between organic and mechanical elements that is their signature sound.

Macmanaman: Drunkendesignatedhitter

Drunkendesignatedhitter

The third CD is Fukuoka-based instrumental post-rock band Macmanaman’s ferocious live album Drunkendesignatedhitter, with the live recording environment really capturing the band’s virtues in their best light. I interviewed them earlier in the year around the release of this album, and as we near the end of the year it’s still holding its own as one of the most impressive underground releases of the year.

Compact Club: Compact Club

Subete wa Template

Lastly, we have new wave art-popsters Compact Club’s Subete wa Template EP (review here). Drawing on influences like the Plastics, Devo  and especially P-Model, but with a skronky, postpunk edge, they’re one of my favourite new bands, this is their debut release, but there’s hopefully going to be great new stuff coming from them.

This store is never going to be anything other than a narrow, tightly curated fragment of everything that’s out there, filtered through my own particular taste, but it will grow gradually as I add more stuff. Some new stock arrived today and I shall be writing it up and updating the store over then next week or so, and I’ll ensure I post any new arrivals here as they come in.

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