Japanese singer-songwriter Satoru Ono has a pretty wide ranging background, having performed as a satellite member of the experimental indie/folk/psychedelic/pop projects of no fixed membership Tenniscoats and Maher Shalal Hash Baz, as well as working with guitar pop darling Hideki Kaji. From his hometown of Kyoto he has a long association with the frightfully hip but a bit scattershot and confusing Second Royal label, and in his current home in Tokyo, he has various connections with the Twee Grrrls/Violet & Claire/indiepop crowd but seems happy to ply his trade wherever he’s welcome.
The core of his own musical output as a singer-songwriter (he currently performs in a ramshackle three-piece as the Satoru Ono Band) lies partly in a handful of tracks for compilations, but primarily in the trio of albums he released through Second Royal between 2005 and 2010, so it’s these three records I’ll be taking a brief look at here.
2005’s Frankenstein is perhaps the oddest of the three from a musical perspective, suggesting that while Ono had come into the process with an already well-developed songwriting sensibility, he was less sure of himself in terms of production and arrangement. While the likes of To Be Loathsome, You and Me, and Domperi contain echoes of White Album/Abbey Road era Beatles, elsewhere curiously dissonant synths and drum machine beats challenge that mood, as on A Rum Tale and the wonderful, Stereolab-like psychedelic pop workout of Hascach, one of the album’s highlights. Early single Wavered in Cambridge combines Ono’s 60s UK pop and psychedelic influences with a sensibility still rooted in Japanese 1990s style songwriting that he will have been familiar with from his work with Hideki Kaji, while the closest thing to a straight-up rocker on the album, Conventional People, is densely packed with oddities of its own, the guitar and synth battling for the song’s soul over a descending chord progression that intentionally or otherwise recalls Puffy’s Asia no Junshin (itself a pretty transparent ELO pastiche), and Ono’s voice, a nasal half-whisper that was never going to be suited to rocking out, giving the song the impression of a piece of twee pop that just fell off a cliff. Put simply, it’s an album that tries to be half a dozen different things at once (the title is apt) and the end result is an eclectic, occasionally disorientating collection of songs with some seriously impressive songwriting at its core.
This version of Hascach performed live with a standard rock setup is an interesting and quite widely divergent take on the album version:
Skipping ahead two years and Ono has refined his style rather more for 2007’s Days of Perky Pat. The strong core of classic songwriting still forms the backbone of the album, although now the arrangements have jettisoned the electronic and synth elements in favour of more timeless organ sounds backing up a traditional drums, guitar and bass setup. That’s not to say that Days of Perky Pat is in any way more limited in terms of its musical range, with Ono’s melodies effortlessly hitting sweet spot after sweet spot without ever seeming to repeat themselves and never getting stuck in the cliches of a particular scene and its associated generic rut. The album still packs surprises with the summery groove of Afternoon in My Own Festival kicking in just as it seemed like the album was settling into a pattern of uptempo guitar pop and late Beatles-influenced rock. Ono then follows it with Clown Song, with its echoes of The Kinks/Jam’s David Watts, and the full-on Glitterstomp of Two Wins and Three Losses. Days of Perky Pat is, in summary, a more coherent piece of production and arrangement, but doesn’t indicate any narrowing of Ono’s songwriting range, balancing a consistent atmosphere with discrete songwriting gems in a way that marks him as a songwriter with a consummate grasp of the intricacies of guitar pop.
This is something that Ono developed and refined still further on 2010’s Tales from Cross Valley, this time with the help of producer Dave Naughton (who had previously worked with Belle & Sebastian and Teenage Fanclub). Again, there isn’t a duff moment on here, effortlessly channelling The Kinks, late Beatles, Elvis Costello and the less sonically-obsessed elements of 80s and 90s indiepop in a way that confidently keeps its lively steps on the right side of the line between timeless and merely retro. There are moments where the influences are worn recognisibly close to the sleeve, with C-Berry containing if not too much exactly, certainly enough of Costello’s Oliver’s Army to be easily noticeable. Again, there is little in the way of repetition, even of material and ideas from previous albums, but a sense of what kind of range of material a Satoru Ono album will contain might now be settling, with powerpop rockers (Old Rose Stout Union), bouncy, breezy Beatlesy guitar pop numbers (I Will Be There) and faintly eerie waltz-time ballads (Moon it’s You). The only moment where the upbeat, summery, classic guitar pop atmosphere breaks down is on the dreamy Above Jewel, with its fragile female vocals, atmospheric synth backdrop and distant beats recalling electronic-tinged 90s lo-fi indiepop that groups like the Trembling Blue Stars sometimes played with. What Ono never allows to happen is for the hooks and melodies to lag, sag or drag in any way, and if Tales from Cross Valley doesn’t exactly move him on substantially from Days of Perky Pat, it certainly solidifies his position as one of Japan’s foremost guitar pop songwriters.
Satoru Ono Band: C-Berry
One interesting way in which Ono does seem to be experimenting is by writing new material in Japanese rather than English for what might be the first time. I know a few Japanese songwriters who prefer to write lyrics in English, saying that it’s difficult to get Japanese sentences to flow with pop music rhythms, which makes me wonder if one of the enduring differences between R&B-influenced Western classic songwriting and Japanese kayoukyoku-originated pop might be related to differences in how the styles treat rhythm (punk or postpunk is flexible enough in how it treats vocals for differences between Japanese and English not to be an issue, while dance music goes perhaps the other way and forces English to behave in a more disciplined fashion). In any case, new songs that Ono has been debuting live recently indicate that his next album is likely to have a significant amount of Japanese language content. That’s not to say of course that there’s anything particularly wrong with his English (it’s occasionally awkward and unnatural to native ears, but it’s far from the blathering awfulness of bands like Love Psychedelico), but as a challenge to express himself in a language which he speaks in his daily life but which exists almost entirely outside the musical tradition from which his own music draws, it’s an interesting step.