Category Archives: Track

Indiepop roundup (Summer 2020)

Tangingugun – Yasui Jumon
Matsumoto, Nagano-based Tangingugun typically trade in laid-back pop melodies delivered through a hazy filter of psychedelic-tinted guitar distortion, the male-female twin vocal interplay between Saori Nakamura and Masashiro Nimi adding an enriching layer of texture to the sound — sometimes trading lines, others intermingled as harmonies, and on Kiri wa Hagureta slipping easily between the two. While there are moments where things step up to a bouncier tempo, as on second track Koumi-machi, the prevailing atmosphere is one of quietly sophisticated, summery melancholy.

Puffyshoes – I Might Be In Love
I wrote about this EP for the Undrcurrents blog’s Bandcamp roundup in June, singling out the simple economy of Puffyshoes’ songwriting in how they create ultra-short lo-fi pop nuggets by focusing in on the hooks and rarely getting diverted once the point has been made. I Might Be in Love also sees the band playing around with other songwriters’ material, as on their joyously ragged-edged cover of The Strangeloves’ I Want Candy, and it’s testament to Puffyshoes’ own songwriting that they can flit between the two seamlessly.

Sloppy Joe – Waiting For The Night Begins
It feels strange to be writing about Sloppy Joe almost ten years after their first album, With Kisses Four, with the same mixture of irony and giddy joy and with almost the same words, but here I am and here is Waiting For The Night Begins. And really it’s like not a moment had passed, which is to say that from the bat it sounds like the meticulous and loving work of a passionately devoted Smiths tribute band. To leave it at that assessment alone would be more dismissive than Sloppy Joe deserve though, and they wear their jangly 1980s indiepop influences so proudly, their love for the sounds, the tone, the inflections and melodic habits of the era running far deeper than Morrissey and Marr — fans of Aztec Camera, The Pale Fountains, early Orange Juice, The Monochrome Set and plenty more will frequently find themselves in a familiar place. Above all, the craftsmanship underlying these songs and their attention to detail is spellbinding, sweeping the listener up in the band’s obvious love for the music — originality be damned.

Half Sports – Intelligence and Delicious
Intelligence and Delicious is Half Sports’ first album since 2014’s Mild Elevation, although a couple of 7-inches have appeared in the meantime, and the propulsive opening Missing the Piece of my Miseries shows the band still have their peculiar cocktail of energetic melancholy, combining punkish 1970s powerpop with shoegazey scuzz and distortion, with the album taking a turn towards the hazier end of that spectrum on Emperor Soy Sauce and leaning on the rockier end on Isolated Facts.

Morningwhim – Talking to Myself / Smoke From Cigarettes
The first of a couple of new releases by Aichi Prefecture’s Morningwhim, this cassette single is perhaps the more immediately striking of the two, with Talking To Myself in particular pushing all the right bittersweet buttons from its heartache chord changes to the slight rough edges of the vocals’ celestial 4AD harmonies. That’s not to diminish the other side, Smoke From Cigarettes, though, which carries a similar scuzzy, jangly garage-shoegaze energy with just as much assurance. The cover art suggests a lingering influence from Pains of Being Pure at Heart, but from the evidence of this, Morningwhim have plenty to offer in their own right.

Morningwhim – Most Of the Sun Shines
In addition to the wonderful Talking to Myself / Smoke From Cigarettes cassette single, Morningwhim also released this 7-inch this spring, with a cleaner, less fuzz-inflected sound, the title track setting an acoustic guitar groove against a haunting synth string backdrop, while B-side Wandering turns up the jangle and chime. This single makes for more of a low-key introduction to the band than the cassette, but demonstrates that their sweetly melodic guitar pop songwriting talents run deep.

Various Artists – Miles Apart Records presents “Moments”
Drenched in nostalgia for times of which most of the featured musicians are too young to have their own memories, this cassette compilation from Osaka-based Miles Apart Records sits somewhere between indiepop in its classic, jangly, Byrds-influenced British 1980s roots and the more recent smooth, soft-focus synth strain where the indiepop venn diagram crosses over with city pop. At the murkier, more garage-influenced end are the likes of Pale Beach and Superfriends, whose respective entries Deadbeat and Fake Flowers have a reassuringly cheap, indie or alt-rock edge to their own particular brand of nostalgia, while Pictured Resort lie at the other extreme, their song Comfortable bittersweet and bathed in soft neon. An interesting entry is Cairophenomenons’ Spring (Moments ver.), its jangly, reverb-soaked guitar pop base elements employed to ends that play out with the sort of VHS-haunted atmosphere that other bands here use synths to evoke, and in the end, the sharper edges this setup gives them to work with helps to offset the cloying mellow their more synthetic peers often veer into.

Chris Jack – Miles to Go
Based in Oita in Kyushu, Chris Jack has a certain low-key notoriety as the guitarist and vocalist of garage rock band The Routes, but in this solo album he trades in the explicitly retro for a sound better characterised as classic with music in a timeless singer-songwriter tradition that could have been from any decade in the past fifty or more years. There’s a refreshing sense of space and warmth to the recording, aided by understated arrangements that may subtly underscore a phrase with organ here and there but mainly work to give the vocals and guitar lines space to walk their gently affecting paths.

Letters To Annika – Letters To Annika EP
Letters to Annika is the name under which Azusa Suga, better known from Tokyo indie rock band For Tracy Hyde, records solo work from his room, with this EP being mostly born out of the semi-lockdown conditions of pandemic Tokyo. Perhaps because of the speed and lo-fi recording conditions under which most of these songs were written and produced, during those curious weeks in April where the pandemic-led disruption to life was as much an interesting shift in perspective as a source of fear, there’s a lightness to this EP that feels both refreshing and somehow restless. Manifesting not only in the faintly washed out, shoegaze-tinged sound but also in the almost panicked urgency of the cranked-up motorik rhythms of songs like Love Song, Tidal and Wavelength, Letters to Annika mixes its reverb-drenched polaroid indiepop nostalgia with an immediacy or even urgency. Also worth attention is the non-EP single Summercrush, released in July, which makes an interesting companion to Letters to Annika, taking the EP’s fuzz and jangle and bringing in an on-trend wash of almost vaporwavesque VHS synth.

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Music From The Mars – Every Day and Every Night


Tokyo’s Music From The Mars have roots going back to the eclectic turn-of-the-century Tokyo alternative scene that produced bands like Boat, Natsumen and Mong Hang (Keitaimo from Mong Hang plays bass in Music From The Mars, Kiyoshi Sakai from Boat plays keyboards, while AxSxE from both Boat and Natsumen produced this new single). There’s still a playful prog-rock interplay between multiple elements, brass-buoyed pastoral frolicking one moment, intricate stop-start rhythmical games the next, harsh slashes of punk guitar another, all coming together in a celebratory fashion at the climax. The way Music From The Mars apply near-mathematical technical mastery to essentially easy listening ends means there’s something distinctly Steely Dan about their whole vibe and they don’t shy away from that at all on Every Day and Every Night.

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Mai Mao – Three directions


Bassist Shizuo Uchida and guitarist Kyosuke Terada are commonly seen faces in the anarchic Tokyo experimental scene, each of them wandering a jittery yet fluid path between projects and one-off collaborations that trend heavy on the free improvisation. And that’s what you get with Mai Mao, recorded at underground-leaning Tokyo live venue Kagurane in early 2020, just as the pandemic state of emergency was falling over the city. In Three Directions, the duo create, and proceed to explore, a sparse, spacious sonic landscape of glistening, sharp edges, depthless yawning crevasses and uneasy creatures of shadows. The 18-minute track also comes in the form of a video by Yutsuki Suyama, whose liquid drop painting throws another eerie dimension on the music’s ghostly explorations.

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Uhnellys – Black Ship feat. DJ Oku


For the past couple of decades now, Uhnellys have been plotting a distinctive musical path between hip-hop, jazz and psychedelia, using a combination of drums and loop pedal layers. On this new single, they’re assisted by lively guest turntable scratcher DJ Oku (Funkcuts), but the band’s familiar interplay of laid-back grooves and 1970s cinematic menace is still at play at the heart of the track, as main vocalist Kim trips though an an acerbic narrative, appearing to take aim at everything oppressive and deadening about Japan’s social status quo. The band’s roots based on rhythm and loops means there’s something raw and stripped-down driving the track forward, but it still draws in a catchy, pop-tinted refrain and the odd wry aside throwing a splash of colour over the darkness.

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Puffyshoes: Let’s Fall In Love


Puffyshoes stumbled chaotically through their messy career, shining with brilliance but regularly chucking it all in the trash in a fit of eternally teenage passion before re-emerging and doing it all over again, eventually splitting for what felt like the final time in 2014. For those of us who were wowed and frustrated by them in their initial incarnation, the appearance of this brand new song after four years away is an unexpected delight.

Let’s Fall In Love is drenched in ’60s girl group harmonies, underscored with fuzzy, chugging, reverb-edged guitars and naively clomping drums, which is to say it’s everything fans of the band already know and love about them. The years apart may have added a touch more sophistication to the songwriting, though, and they have fun playing about with a little bit of keyboard to fill out the sparse arrangement. The song lurches to an abrupt, almost cliffhanger conclusion at around one and a half minutes, but with the band hinting at a new album potentially on the way, Let’s Fall In Love offers up plenty of promise for what this more mature Puffyshoes might have to offer.

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Top 20 Releases of 2015: No.5 – Platskartny – Dabai

platskartny - dabai

CD, Cheese Burger Records, 2015

Platskartny refers to the third class carriages on the Trans-Siberian Railway, which makes a curious but apt parallel with the wilfully rough, naive, lo-fi music on Dabai. There are also ramshackle parallels with shambling turn-of-the-millennium prog-pop acts like My Pal Foot Foot, Maher Shalal Hash Baz and bits of the Tenniscoats (playing for a year or so in the Tenniscoats is a sort of compulsory National Service for Japanese indie musicians, and members of Platskartny have dutifully done time themselves).

There’s a rougher-edged, more anarchic energy to Platskartny than those twee-as-fuck, Pastels-loving forebears though, and it hits you in the face at the get-go with the frantic postpunk Beefheart of minute-long opening track Despaigne. The desperately simple and insanely catchy I’m a Little Airplane is even more ludicrously enjoyable with its straghtforward four-chord rock’n’roll chopped and distorted playfully and once more delivered with a rough-and-ready mixture of innocence and yobbish insouciance, like, I dunno, The Modern Lovers being covered by Sham 69 via The Contortions.

The gentle melodica and stylophone-led reggae of Ryokou appears twice, being reprised as a coda to the mini-album in a more elaborate dub arrangement featuing a gloriously out-of-tune pub piano and the addition of brass that teeters throughout on the brink of total collapse. In between, Izu is a heartfelt ballad featuring a passionate and infectiously tuneless vocal tour de force, while Tekkaba starts and ends like a stop-start sequel to Despaigne via a diversion into almost louche, Pavement-esque lo-fi rambling.

While Dabai is a wilfully awkward collection of songs, its heart is pure pop and Platskartny deliver it with such energy and aplomb that you can’t help but get swept up in their enthusiasm. Beyond that, however, there’s a wealth of ideas, both simple and more oblique that make this mini-album not only a fun but also a deeply rewarding listen.

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Under: Under / Brinicle / It is like cumulonimbus. ((And me))

Keeping track of enigmatic drone/shoegaze artist Under’s output remains a task requiring constant attention, not only for the constant flow of new material, but also for its frequent Stalinesque erasure. 2015 began with the February release on the US Fire Talk label of Loosen, an EP that had appeared and then suddenly vanished the previous year. After that, a string of free releases emerged, with a self-titled EP in May followed by August’s Brinicle EP and most recently the lone track It is like cumulonimbus. ((And me)) – eccentric punctuation presumably integral to the effect.

The divisions between these releases are sonically meaningless to the outside observer, and really the whole appeal of Under’s work is the way her songs and noise pieces blend into one. It’s music that doesn’t need to progress because it draws from something timeless and pagan: eternal and ephemeral, like mist descending over long barrows.

There are perhaps two threads that run through Under’s music though, with it leaning one way or the other as whim takes it. One thread, perhaps best represented by the self-titled EP, deals in layers of primal, throbbing drone. The other, which Brinicle explores to a greater degree, especially in its gorgeous opening track Foehn, casts out minimal guitar and bass lines, reeling in ambient, psychedelic folk melodies. Layers of guitar effects and tape distortion link these two approaches together, but variations in the balance between them seem to form the core dynamic of Under’s music.

There’s still time for Under to drop another EP before the year’s out, so perhaps attempting this summary of her year’s output is a little premature, but even based on this handful of releases alone, it’s an impressive body of work for a tireless artist.

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That’s A No No!: Damn It!

As a seemingly eternal fixture of the perpetual time loop that is Tokyo’s mod/garage scene, you don’t really imagine a band like That’s A No No! “progressing” in the way the word is commonly understood. It’s a world where a band’s creativity is harnessed more strictly than almost anywhere else into the service of an ideal laid down by the Motown prophets in the religious texts of aeons past. If the measure of a great chef can be said to be how she or he prepares a simple miso soup, the measure of a garage/mod band is how they do Cool Jerk. All this means that a band like That’s A No No! have had to develop their character and style within a much tighter framework than most bands.

One obvious feature that helps the band stand out is vocalist Kei Yoshida’s raw, husky delivery, like a punk Linda Yamamoto or Mari Natsuki. All those years playing the same basic chord progressions over and over again have honed them into a tighter and more propulsive unit as well, with Damn It! barrelling along at a furious pace. There’s a bit of Wilko Johnson too in the jagged rough-and-tumble of the guitars, and at a sweet two minutes long, it’s too short by exactly the right amount. Originality is so far away from the ideal bands like That’s A No No! are driving for that it’s pointless to judge them on it, but within the strict confines their genre allows, they’ve managed to both develop and retain some character of their own. Like a good chef, a good band shows through whatever ingredients they work with.

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Idol Music’s Garden of Forking Paths: Yurumerumo!’s “Hamidasumo!” and Perfume’s “Pick Me Up”

In this day and age where pretty much any musical or fashion subculture is ripe for co-option and exploitation by the idol scene, it’s worth taking a step back and looking at where it all kicked off.

The love affair between idol groups and indie/underground music, in its current form at least, started with Shibuya-kei and neo new wave – two genres that were already long on the road to convergence. The fading from the mainstream of Shibuya-kei around 1998 or so coincided with the brief bubble of retro new wave and technopop that grew up around the Tokyo Newwave of Newwave ’98 compilation album and bands like Polysics, Spoozys and Motocompo.

Gradually, some of the technopop remnants of the neo new wave scene coalesced with a sort of dead cat bounce of Shibuya-kei, around labels like Vroom Sound, Softly! And Usagi-Chang. Plus-tech Squeeze Box, Hazel Nuts Chocolate, Eel, Aprils, YMCK and others floated around in similar circles to the still extant Motocompo and Shibuya-kei revivalists like Capsule, sometimes guesting on each other’s records.

The emergence of Perfume in 2003-2004, produced by Capsule’s Yasutaka Nakata, set off a lot of light bulbs in the collective imagination of this post-neo-new-wave, post-post-Shibuya-kei scene and people started to realise that even as their own music had been sidelined by the music industry, the idol scene was musically malleable enough that they might be able to do something within its structures. More than that even, Perfume were a ray of light through the whole indie, underground and punk scenes who perhaps needed a splash of colour as they laboured under the receding shadow of brilliant but discordant and angry bands like Number Girl. Perfume were cute, colourful, cool and contemporary, but at the same time, there was a nostalgic sort of retro-futurism to them. They may have been heavily influenced by Daft Punk, but one of their earliest songs was a cover of the new wave classic Jenny wa Gokigen Naname by Juicy Fruits, and their path from technopop through electropop left echoes of beloved bands of eras past, particularly YMO.

Yurumerumo are an idol group very much in that tradition. Drawing from a songwriting and production talent pool rooted in new wave-influenced artists, they regularly work with lyricist Ai Kobayashi from technopop duo Miami (Yurumerumo often perform the Miami song Shiratama Disco, the original version of which appeared on my own Call And Response label’s 2005 debut compilation) and it should come as no surprise to see TNWONW98 alumnus Hayashi from Polysics taking charge of them for Hamidasumo! (side note: Dan Cervi, who plays the newsreader in the promotional video, is another figure I remember from the scene back in those days and man does it make me feel old seeing his face crop up again).Yurumerumo: Hamidasumo!

So namedropping aside, what does all this mean for the song? Well, for all their new wave gloss, Yurumerumo have until now always sounded pretty much like any other generic idol group (i.e. awful) but Hayashi stamps his identity over Hamidasumo! far more distinctively. It sounds like a Polysics song – which is really the whole point of getting in someone like Hayashi in the first place – with all the good and bad that entails. It’s a high-fructose explosion of colour with frenetic beats darting every which way and skronky guitar bits around the edges. It’s all handled with the utmost confidence and control, and well it should be since Hayashi’s been writing essentially the same song over and over for the best part of seventeen years.

Now it’s a solid track, but if I sound weary and cynical here, that’s because I am. The whole nexus of idol music and indie or underground musical subcultures is built around the novelty of “Ooh, it sounds underground… but it looks pop!” and those juxtapositions can only be reproduced as time goes by to diminishing returns. Take a bit of time and listen to Ryotaro Aoki over on the It Came From Japan podcast, talking about Dempagumi.inc’s Neo Japonism and you can hear the word “crazy” turn to ash in a person’s mouth. It’s not that there’s anything in particular wrong with this stuff – it’s just that it’s a musical approach that relies for its whole existence on its freshness, and it’s simply no longer fresh.

For a Japanese pop group to sound fresh right new, what they’d need to do is get back to making pure, unpretentious, shamelessly straightforward pop music, completely free from triangulating subcultural market niches, and there’s something satisfyingly circular about the fact that the group who do that most consistently and best right now is Perfume.Perfume: Pick Me Up

Pick Me Up is the most striking thing Yasutaka Nakata’s trio have done since 2012’s Spending All My Time, with its opening crash of synth chords and relentless ‘90s Hi-Nrg pulse. Nakata even lets the girls try singing properly, and while I’d normally be utterly opposed to such dangerous innovations, such are the joyous, anthemic, dancefloor good vibes of the song that they get away with it.

Talking about musical progression is an increasingly futile exercise in a world where evolving styles generally just means magpie-like hopping from one influence to another rather than any real development. With that in mind, it’s nonetheless interesting how just as so many 80s new wave musicians graduated from synthpop to techno (Dave Ball’s transition from Soft Cell to The Grid is a classic case study, and in Japan Tetsuya Komuro’s career took a comparable trajectory), Perfume have taken the same journey twenty years down the line. More importantly, however, Nakata and Perfume have navigated these shifts while remaining consistently and instantly recognisable as themselves.

There’s plenty to criticise about Pick Me Up, and a permanent bugbear of my music producer friends is Nakata’s dedication to “anti-music” brickwall mastering. Personally I can count the number of shits I give about that on no hands — it’s the sonic equivalent of the Hollywood summer action blockbuster and while there are undoubtedly plenty of people for whom this style is without exception an act of cruel violence against art, I take the view that it’s a tool that can be wielded for good (Marvel Studios) or evil (Michael Bay). In any case, those who find Nakata’s brickwalling tendencies annoying will hate this as much as everything else he does.

It’s also an elaborate advert for a department store chain, with a suitably confusing and pretentious video that may or may not be ripping off the closing scenes of classic 1980s Jim Henson fantasy adventure Labyrinth (sadly sans David Bowie – and a return cameo from OK Go doesn’t really make up for it) and seems to present the store as a malevolent nightmare hall of mirrors that sucks you in, terrorises you with armies of shopper-zombies and then spits you out complete with bags of shopping. Now delightful as it would be to paint this as somehow subversive, it’s still an advert masquerading as a pop video, and regardless of how ubiquitous that becomes, being annoyed by it is a bare minimum moral duty.

As I say though, and stupid video aside, it’s a marvellous song. It’s pop that only cares about being pop, and for all its frisson of EDM embellishments, it’s reassuringly old-school dance-pop with an earworm synth hook that digs in and never lets go. More Eurobeat than Asiatica, it diverges slightly from the formula Nakata has built up for Perfume songs since roundabout the time of Voice in 2010 (and which he perfected with Laser Beam the following year). A song it shares a lot in common with in fact is Korean idol group Kara’s 2011 hit Step, which remains one of the most outstanding songs of the K-pop boom for the same reason: its foregrounding of classic pop songwriting, melody and hooks ahead of fancy zeitgeist-grabbing studio fun.

Representing diverging paths from a common origin, both these songs have a lot going for them. For all that Yurumerumo’s transparent triangulations leave an icky feeling, it’s a solid and distinctive track within its field, and as with Nakata and Perfume, Hayashi’s own identity as a songwriter and producer stands out, which bodes well for the role of musicians behind the scenes in Japanese pop, even if it also underlines the depressing fact that they are simply unable to get the same level of attention without a cluster of girls in the roles of dancing marionettes in front of their music.

Even in that, there is something positive to be gleaned, in how in their own different ways Yurumerumo and Perfume both manage to avoid the creepy, sexually exploitative imagery that pervades the idol scene. If the growing convergence of indie subcultures and idol groups has done one good thing, it’s been to foster a less overtly regressive (if still highly infantilised) set of roles for girls in the idol scene.

Nevertheless, it’s the Perfume track I feel far more comfortable with. As someone whose interest and musical background lies firmly in the indie and underground scenes, I don’t need pop groups holding up a mirror to my tastes in an attempt to sucker me in as a customer. Pop music is at its best when it doesn’t try to be anything other than pop, and in Japan right now, no one does pop better than Perfume.

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group A: Initiation – mixed by Tom Furse (The Horrors)

Whatever you think about The Horrors’ own music (and some people really hate it, or at least pretend to to make a point), you’ve got to admit they have impeccable taste in the music they like. Group A exist at a rawer, more avant-garde location in roughly the same postpunk/kraut/industrial taste spectrum that The Horrors seem to occupy, so despite the obvious differences in how the two groups sound, the sensibility that they share ensures that shifting things a little bit one way or another maintains a sort of thematic consistency.

Group A’s original Initiation is a stark, metallic, minimal Throbbing Gristle pastiche, but in this remix, Tom Furse of The Horrors softens that somewhat, making the vocals clearer and adding a bouncy, if still menacing, synth bass. To say that this remix is poppier than the original says more about Group A’s own version than it does about Furse’s take on the track, which is thicker but still functions as a relentless early 80s-style synth-EBM drone. With her voice emerging from the back of the cavern of reverb that it had previously occupied, Tommi is here present as a sort of sneering cockney punk. The overall function is to bring the song up closer to the listener, more insistent than insidious, but also with an obvious understanding of and respect for what the original was trying to achieve.

The track will be available to download for free for a few more days and there’s apparently more to come, so keep an eye out.

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