Monthly Archives: December 2014

Strange Boutique (December 2014) – the year in music

As 2014 comes to a close, it’s end-of-year review time, and as usual my Japan Times column took on the task of trying to find new ways of describing the same stuff that happens every year. For those of you who’d rather not read the full 1500-word piece, it goes something like this:

  • Music industry still broadly in decline
  • Record companies still suspicious of online music and streaming
  • Advertising and tie-ups increasingly more important than actual sales
  • Korean music doing better than Japanese music abroad
  • AKB48 not as popular as they were but still pretty much the biggest thing out there

The way I chose to look at it this time round was from the perspective of what some of the key events or trends of the year tell us about who music is really being made for.

With a group like AKB48, there are a lot of intersecting factors at play as they balance the need to please a number of different masters. As one of my always charming commenters was helpful enough to point out, Google Trends isn’t the only, or the best, measure of something’s overall popularity, and of course their sales are still sky-high. Oricon’s recently-published year-end charts give the group all of the top five singles and the number one album in terms of CD sales, although this figure is fishy as well given the marketing gimmicks that surround CD sales in Japan. The top 40 CD singles was dominated by three organisations: Yasushi Akimoto’s AKB family, the Johnny & Associates boyband farm, and perma-tanned, goateed, twats-in-hats boy band Exile. All these acts boost their CD sales with marketing gimmicks aimed at their fanatical core fanbases, and it’s interesting to note that the only act from outside this axis of evil to make the top 40, comedy “air band” Golden Bomber, released their own song in a plain white case with no extras as a protest against this sort of gimmickry (or/and as a gimmick in itself).

What I was looking at in Google Trends was the general, casual interest in AKB48, in particulat the spikes that occur in June every year around “election” time. This is the time people who otherwise wouldn’t care much about the band but have a mild, general interest in them and are generally favourably inclined towards them are more likely to have a look to see what’s going on with them. Throughout the year, point by point, the figures are about one third of their 2011 peak. This doesn’t affect sales because these people never bought AKB CDs anyway, but it does affect advertising. Anyone living in Tokyo these past few years would have noticed the diminishing visibility of the group on billboards, and as a colleague of mine recently pointed out, advertisers have even resorted to labelling the group in adverts so that people know who they are – something usually reserved for new acts the ad agency has hooked up with the tie-ups as part of its deal with their talent agency. But then the turnover of band members ensures that AKB48 are perpetually a new group, and this is the core of their problem for advertisers in 2014: everyone knew Atsuko Maeda, Yuko Oshima, Tomomi Ito, Mariko Shinoda and maybe a couple of others, but people nowadays would struggle to name any of the current lineup.

In terms of my question about who music is for, where AKB48 fans have been successful is that by their enormous expenditure on the group, they have retained a degree of ownership over them. This idea of ownership is perhaps key to the success of the whole idol format: the fans, by their exercise of obsessive degrees of purchasing power, are able to keep the groups “for them” rather than letting them slip entirely into the treacherous hands of advertising. It’s extreme and a bit mad in its degree, and far more focused on “character” consumption than on music listening, but taken in isolation, the principle is admirable.

Looking over at the iTunes charts, we see a very different picture, with a more diverse selection of acts and far less in the way of idol music (as I say, idol otaku aren’t music fans, they’re machines for consuming character goods) but it does serve as a timely warning of what awaits us if the idol boom were to suddenly die. In three words: One OK Rock. In another three words: Sekai no Owari. I have nothing to say to that other than yuck. We can blame the music industry for feeding people shit, but sooner or later, music audiences have to just take responsibility for their own awful taste.

One thing I didn’t have space to mention in the context of the growing prominence of the “national interest” in the use of pop music was Ringo Shiina’s NHK World Cup theme, which was accused in some quarters of being unnecessarily nationalistic. Now I’m not sure what that means in this context – football is pretty much the one arena in which you get a free pass to be as jingoistic, flag-waving and borderline fascist as you want without damaging your liberal softie cred – but given the Abe government’s ongoing efforts to stack NHK’s board with historical revisionists and ignorant propaganda stooges it bears keeping an eye on. As for Shiina herself, who knows? Her whole aesthetic is based around the fact that she loves Japan a lot, and that’s part of her appeal. A bigger problem with the song is that it was a really rubbish song.

In any case, the fact that the government are now openly and explicitly mobilising pop culture to promote their agenda, from the relatively benign Olympics-related let’s-make-ourselves-look-good-for-the-guests stuff to the full-on militarist AKB48 join-the-army-spread-dreams-to-the-world ad campaign bears scrutiny. What are the criteria behind who gets Cool Japan money? If you’re taking that money, have you read the small print? Do you fully understand what other agenda you might be unwittingly hitching yourself to? This may seem a bit paranoid now, but no pop culture exists in a vacuum, and if pop music is being recruited to serve the state, it matters a lot what the extent of the state’s agenda is. I’d feel much more comfortable with Cool Japan is it was completely out of the hands of the government and in the hands of an independent arts council.

Of course indie music is the main purpose of this blog, and 2014 was a particularly fine vintage for music that no one either within Japan or without is ever going to care about. I wrote a bit about this for The Japan Times earlier in December as part of its albums-of-the-year roundup, and I repeated myself using slightly different words as a small part of Néojaponisme’s own year-end roundup. I shan’t go into detail here because I’ll be going into it in painstaking album-by-album depth next month in my personal 2014 top twenty countdown, but particularly for indiepop and fucked-up junk/postpunk/skronk there was a bumper harvest to the point where whittling it down to a mere twenty discs has proven a painful and difficult exercise.

One of the booms in the indie scene this year has been what I tend to dismissively call “funny bands”, with comical and/or performance-orientated acts like Dotsuitarunen, Nature Danger Gang, Guessband and others being ubiquitous. Partly I think this is the flipside of idol music in that if we see indie as a degraded mirror of mainstream entertainment, where girls are pretty idols while men are comedians. As a result, the indie scene subconsciously mimics that format so on the one hand we get Seiko Oomori and on the other we get Triple Fire.

This rise of owarai-type acts like these is something I’m ambivalent about in that on one level it cheapens the indie scene by making it qualitatively not significantly different from the mainstream, but on the other hand, just as I’d listen to AKB48 any day over terrible, “serious” J-pop bands like Kobukuro and Ikimono Gakari, these theatrical, comical indie bands and performers are infinitely preferable to the tediously earnest, sterile technical virtuosity of professional on-stage wankers like Toe.

In my own musical projects, I can pronounce myself largely satisfied with what 2014 gave me. I celebrated the ten year anniversary of my first event with a thrilling Koenji Pop Festival at Higashi Koenji 20000V/Ni-man Den-atsu which was probably the loudest thing I’ve ever experienced in my life. The venue is notoriously loud to begin with, and when the PA engineer gets excited, he tends to gradually push everything up and up as the night goes on. By the time headliners Hyacca stepped up, the walls and floor were shaking and the whole experience was just one of sheer, earsplitting rhythmical noise. For me at least in a good way.

Earlier in the year my Call And Response label put out the album Mind Business by Slovenian rapper N’toko, which remains one of the releases I’m proudest of and perhaps the most coherent recorded artistic statement the label has ever put out. I released it on iTunes, probably for the first and last time of anything on my label. I have nothing in particular against Apple, but given what a non-profitmaking venture Call And Response is, iTunes is just not a marketplace where I feel comfortable doing business or able to justify the time and energy. There’s no pot of gold at the end of the online rainbow, just an increasingly grubby race to the bottom in terms of prices and returns. While I enjoy the convenience of online music as a consumer, as a label owner I prefer to deal with customers and vendors in person, even if that means a vanishingly small number of them. The N’toko tour in March confirmed a lot of those feelings for me, and while it had its ups and downs in terms of crowds, there were far more ups, and experiencing it all in person was its own justification and reward for the effort putting it all together took.

Other releases I put out or helped put out over the course of the year were February’s free compilation 「チョコくれるのはいいが・・・、何を企んでるんだぁぁ!?!?」 featuring 21 different bands covering the song Paranoid by Black Sabbath. I will hopefully top that for completely stupid and pointless free covers projects by the end of next year or at most the year after. The summer also saw the albums Tane to Zenra by Kagoshima psychedelic band Futtachi and Love Song Duet by Tokyo synth-punk trio Jebiotto. Both of these are albums that would on their own musical merits certainly make it into my personal top albums of the year list if I admitted Call And Response releases for contention in those things, but I don’t so they won’t.

There’s already plenty to look forward to next year, with Extruders and Sayuu/Sa Yuu planning new albums for early in the new year. Going a little more mainstream, Capsule have a new album due out soon, albeit alarmingly EDMish judging from the sounds currently emerging from chez Nakata. With Call And Response Records entering its tenth anniversary year, I personally intend to be a busy bee putting out a string of truly horrible releases lab-grown to be the opposite of everything popular in Japanese music right now.

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Homecomings: Somehow, Somewhere

Somehow, Somewhere

CD, Second Royal/Felicity, 2014

One of the standout acts of Fuji Rock’s Rookie A Go-Go new bands stage in 2013 (they were beaten in the voting by a novelty band of dancing prawns), Homecomings have had a productive 2014 with March’s I Want You Back EP/mini-album, the July vinyl release of their 2013 Homecoming with Me? Mini-album, a September split single/collaboration with singer-songwriter Sachie Hiraga, and now this first full length album just in time for Christmas. Rather than a purely UK/US-styled twee/indiepop band, Homecomings’ melodies feel more like indiepop-arranged J-pop. There’s so much crossover in elements that it’s not a cut-and-dried thing by any means, and while the Supremes Cant Hurry Love beat that underlies Dancing in the Moonlight is definitely one rooted in the Motown tradition, it’s also one beloved of 80s/90s kayoukyoku/J-pop songwriters, and it’s that latter tradition that the breezy (but not at all bluesy) melody fits most easily into. Similarly, on songs like Mall, it’s clear the tremendous, probably subliminal, influence the himself very Western-influenced Eiichi Ohtaki continues to have over indiepop songwriters in Japan. Rather like For Tracy Hyde earlier this year, Homecomings leave a sense of Japanese pop songwriting habits and Western indie styles inextricably mixed together in a way that manages to be satisfying to both traditions. But the real thing that defines Homecomings’ sound is the harmonies and backing vocals, and as the album progresses, they crawl under your skin, rarely jumping out at you, but along with the simple, bouncy guitar solos they are an ever present feature of the music. From start to finish Somehow, Somewhere is light and fluffy as a soufflé, but as one unassumingly presented yet expertly crafted tune after another makes its way out of the speakers, it becomes clearer and clearer that the sum total of Homecomings’ diaphanous parts is something far more substantial.

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Teen Runnings: Now

Now

CD, Sauna Cool, 2014

Teen Runnings’ debut album Let’s Get Together Again was such a pure, finely honed rush of scuzzy, lo-fi early Beach Boys-style summer melodies and 80s Jesus And Mary Chain noise pop, so comfortable in its niche that it’s hard to see where the band could take it from there. Of course that particular musical seam is rich enough that they could have stayed there, fleshing out their influences and refining their songwriting and arrangements without really moving on, and for a large portion of Now that’s what they do.

Songs like Don’t Care About Me pick up exactly where the band’s debut left off, while I Wonder What Your Mom’s Thinking develops the 80s jangle-pop aspects of their sound. I’ve always had a sneaking suspicion that somewhere in Shota Kaneko’s mind there lurks a massive Slade fan struggling to escape and start pounding out glam rock anthems, and High School Love seems to borrow the intro to Cum On Feel the Noize, although it swiftly departs in another direction entirely and ends up being one of the songs that best exemplifies the growing sophistication of Teen Runnings’ songwriting and arrangements.

Where Now diverts most strongly from these fuzzy, summery, punkish guitar pop is in the growing incursions of other genres as the album progresses. Leather Jacket has a squelchy funk bassline, while the bass becomes even more slippery on Sightseeing, with the addition of a clattering drum machine and a growing influence of synths on the song’s overall texture. Meanwhile closing song Don’t Take Me Down is full-on 80s synth-pop, stealing wholesale the chord progression from Rick Astley’s Never Gonna Give You Up but a plenty fun, catchy pop tune in its own right.

And in the end, despite the 60s garage roots, it’s the primarily 80s that Teen Runnings seem to hark back to, albeit an 80s that was itself deeply in love with the 60s. The cover art by Hiroshi Nagai recalls the artist’s earlier work on Eiichi Ohtaki’s classic 1981 album A Long Vacation, which itself owes a lot to David Hockney’s 1967 work A Bigger Splash (albeit without the fun of the actual splash) just as Ohtaki’s music drew heavily on the Beach Boys and Phil Spector. Where Nagai and Ohtaki took the 60s and refined its aesthetics – removing the splash, as it were – Teen Runnings go a long way towards putting some of that kinetic power back in, and on Now, they do a good job of maintaining that balance.

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Asserting ownership of girly culture — The Pats Pats: Girls Talk

Girly culture is an odd thing, sitting at the nexus of old-school social conservatism, the grasping desperation of late-stage consumer capitalism, and punk-influenced DIY subculture. Maoist China went to great lengths to ensure the ubiquity of strong female images in its public art, but as soon as it opened its asshole to anything-goes capitalism, feminine beauty began to be ruthlessly exploited as a lever to open the wallets of consumers. Japan and the West have been at the same game for far longer, albeit coloured by differing regional quirks. The pathological way toy marketing separates out the boys’ stuff into the blue aisle and the girls’ stuff into the pink aisle is occasionally the subject of public debate, but in the end it comes down to the way marketing identifies, exaggerates and exploits the individual characteristics of consumer groups, separating them out, training them to understand and identify with their position in their market sector, and then exploiting that identification to sell them shit.

This is something born purely from the machinations of consumer capitalism, but it finds allies and supporters among those with socially conservative notions of femininity – those (men) who feel threatened by the idea of “aggressive” women. In Japan, hyper-stylised images of feminine cuteness often sit alongside socially conservative attitudes (although not always comfortably so) in the otaku world. In the West, feminist grievances with aggressively gendered marketing, especially to children, are one battleground in the culture wars of which things like Gamergate are also part.

On the surface, it’s easy to take the view that women in the West have more fight in them. In the UK, “a Bic for her” is an inherently ludicrous idea and the object of sarcasm and ridicule, while in Japan it’s hard to imagine any such resistance. That said, somewhere along the line, the idea of a pink ballpoint pen specially for women must have seemed like an idea that would work – at least, there must have been enough evidence from other marketing successes to suggest that it would. In Japan it is perhaps more extreme, but it’s also perhaps not surprising that when society has such prescriptive notions of how girls are supposed to be, and works so hard to ensure that, taken together, submitting to these rules constitutes an attractive lifestyle choice, that girls will embrace them rather than fight them.

Now this may seem like an unnecessarily long preamble for what is essentially one of those “Hey, look at this!” blog posts about a cute music video from a hip new band, but this is the background to where girly culture in Japan sits right now. Girls have been trained to identify in a certain way, and there are powerful social forces that are happy for things to stay that way. Fighting it makes you look like a feminist, which has been successfully coloured as terminally uncool, but at the same time, that doesn’t stop girls from consciously or otherwise asserting ownership over their identity as a group.

Girls Talk by The Pats Pats is steeped in the girliest of girly imagery, the lyrics running through a shopping list of girly activities and interests, reinforcing one stereotype after another, but at the same time celebrating this special time with their girlfriends and strictly no boys allowed. Having entered the consumer pen into which they have been shepherded, there isn’t really anything to stop them shutting the door behind them – thanks for the cute stuff: we’ll call you.

The Pats Pats are thoroughly DIY – the 2nd EP from which Girls Talk is the lead track is a homemade, self-released CD, and like a lot of similarly DIY groups, they have a line of homemade accessories and other goods that they and their friends have designed and made. This process of becoming an active rather than passive participant in the culture, while doing nothing for those girls who dream of an alternative to the pink, the frills and the flowers, still has the (again, conscious or otherwise) effect of turning the pink, frills and flowers into weapons of defence or markers of territory. In economic terms, they have taken control of the means of production, and when boys are allowed, they may enter only with the understanding of who owns the turf.

The song? It’s cute, catchy, fun and pop pop pop.

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The Piqnic: I Can’t Breathing

I Can't Breathing

CD, self-released, 2014

Hailing from Hamamatsu on the western edge of Shizuoka prefecture, The Piqnic have picked up a bit of buzz in 2014 initially through the nearby Nagoya scene, which often seems to be a friendly home-away-from-home for any UK-influenced Japanese indie rock. Trading in a sort of gothic, vaguely psychedelic, 80s-styled, postpunk-influenced epic rock (think The Chameleons), the band are caught in a curious place betweens their music’s aspirations on one hand and their actual reach on the other.

It’s live that it shows up most strongly, and songs like Lololo and Nicht arrive fully-formed for festival and arena stages, but are also loud and pummelling enough to impress on a small stage. Where the music slows down ands opens up into mid-paced rock balladry, it becomes a little stranger, as if the band are singing for an audience they don’t yet have, their voices and tunes flying over the heads of the crowd that is actually there. The Piqnic’s onstage persona is dark, distant and reserved, projecting an image of epic rock at you from afar even when they are just a few feet away, but the recorded versions of songs like ♂♀♀ allow a different, more intimate kind of listening, with some of early Radiohead’s fragility showing through, while the eerie, psychedelic interlude Unheard shows an off-kilter musical imagination that it would be interesting to see taken further.

It’s all frightfully emotional, which is as a rule something thoroughly discouraged on these pages, but on CD we can at least say it works, and some tracks in particular have an undeniable power, made all the more impressive by the casual ease with which they seem able to deploy it. If the buzz around The Piqnic continues to pick up, they may soon start to see their epic ambitions matched by the forum in which they can present it.

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Death By Raygun: Invention of the Senseless High School Massacre

Two and a half minutes of scuzzed-out garage-surf lo-fi trash, Inventor of the Senseless High School Massacre spends the first minute or so making the most of a melody that only seems to contain two notes, before chucking that in the dustbin as unnecessarily baroque and deciding it’s more fun to just spend the rest of the song making the guitars go squeeee and hissssss and wahhhhhhhchhchchchchhh, and doing that thing with the keyboards that makes them go wibblewibblewibble like songbirds experiencing, well, death by raygun. Oh, and the howling and the shouting. Death By Raygun don’t so much play their instruments as happen to them, and a lot of fun it is too.

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LIF: LIF I

Lif is the solo project of Soh Oouchi from postpunk band Hysteric Picnic, but while it retains some roots in 80s underground music, it’s an altogether more experimental, more uncompromising beast. Starting out with Acid‘s abstract electronic doodles, second track Blue Sex quickly resorts to stabbing the page with a barrage of throbbing industrial pulses, clanks and crashes and this broadly establishes the parameters of the album. The other key ingredient is the samples, with Happiness asking over and over again the question “What does happiness mean to you?” until its relentless, mechanical consistency has drained the question of all meaning. Elsewhere, the samples are hacked to pieces, reversed and distorted so that they no longer resemble words or indeed human sounds of any kind. Closing track CNS takes this to extremes, ensuring the album climaxes in what I can only describe as a brutal soup infested with robot piranhas. And fittingly so.

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