Based in London but partly hailing from Japan, punk-noiseniks Comanechi have gradually been (re-)adopted by Japanese audiences, thanks partly to some smart promotion and their association with Nagoya’s shrewd and indie-rooted Knew Noise Records label. Currently in Japan with former Japanese labelmates Bo Ningen (since moved to Sony), the group’s second album, You Owe Me Nothing But Love, arrives almost simultaneously in the UK via Tigertrap and in Japan through Knew Noise.
Drummer and vocalist Akiko Matsuura has a definite knack for self-absorbed, scattershot, bratpunk sloganeering. Individual phrases jump out and arrest you with imagery that pricks you with perfectly weighted incongruities even as any overarching meaning remains opaque. You could fill a review like this with quotes like “I’m not into fashion / I’m into punk!” and “I think I’m now mentally ill / I’ve never ever been so out of my mind!” but skip to any point in You Owe Me Nothing But Love and Matsuura will be screaming something similarly dislocated or just plain snotty at you.
There’s also a thread of ambiguous sexuality running through the album, and even where the lyrics do become explicit, as on Patsy, Matsuura’s rambling monologue pushes the imagery to surreal extremes. What she does is only half of the picture, however, because all this imagery bounces off (and plays off) the audience’s awareness that the vessel of delivery is a mad-looking Japanese woman. Like it or not (and for many people who live here, the answer is often “not”), modern Japan, and Japanese girls in particular, is often associated with a slightly batty and deviantly sexual image, and it’s the context of this deeply nested (and not strictly accurate) image that helps the listener to take Matsuura’s mixture of aggression, playfulness, surreal imagination and murky eroticism, and process it as something giddy and fun rather than annoying and pretentious. She’s a mad Japanese woman acting mad and Japanese, so it fits. PJ Harvey delivering the same lyrics would be seen as making a “statement” and Mark E Smith barking them out would be… intriguing but, well, different.
Some of the reviews of You Owe Me Nothing But Love are talking about it in the context of some kind of grunge revival. I sort of see it, especially on tracks like Out of My Mind or Dream of Dream, but if this is grunge, it’s a grunge that’s suspiciously similar to an ever-evolving but largely unbroken tradition of garage-punk going back to the 70s (was it ever anything else?) Comanechi have a knack for wringing an admirably broad range of music from their stripped-down sonic setup, with the caustic strut of Love is the Cure and the fizzy postpunk rollercoaster of 24hr Boyfriend occupying the catchy end of the spectrum.
The group’s confidence in their songwriting range allows them to take a winding route through the album, with the eight-minute rant of Patsy juxtaposed with the surprisingly pretty Into the Air. Comanechi can also be pretty fierce on the ears, verging on noise band, but on this album Death Threat is the only place where they really let loose with their full noisy potential. It caps a closing run of tracks through the aforementioned Out of My Mind and the punky Mad that grow in derangement, Simon Petrovich gradually unscrewing his guitar from mere dentist’s drill intensity to outright sonic headfuck, its shrieks and whistles sometimes mingling indistinguishably with Matsuura’s hysterical vocals.
Looking at Comanechi from the perspective of the Japanese music scene, they seem to be viewed by some with a mixture of familiarity and exoticism, as if Matsuura were the prodigal child, returned to show them a through-the-looking-glass image of the stylish, uninhibited London selves that they could be. And however they might be perceived in London (has London got over the idea of Japan as somewhere inexplicably weird and alien yet? Surely it has by now…) they definitely feel more a product of their environment and their own unique imaginations rather than a “Japanese band”. Where similarly noisy bands in the Japanese scene will tend to run off on more experimental and rhythmical tangents, Comanechi keep the core of their songs simple. Where eccentricities and abandon in the Japanese scene often push their more eye-opening extremes with a sense of performance and ritual, as if free expression is more comfortably achieved in the context of a delineated framework, Comanechi exude more of an arrogant self-assurance.
It’s easy to spend too much energy musing on such things though, and doubtless incredibly irritating for the band (who are just going to have to put up with it in this case), because in the end, You Owe Me Nothing But Love is a really good record on its own idiosyncratic, needling, goading terms and well worth checking out.