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Top 20 Releases of 2015: No.15– mmm – Safe Mode

mmm - safe mode lp

Vinyl LP, Enban, 2015

With this entry in the list, I’ll confess to cheating a bit. Originally released in October 2014, it would fall outside the scope of this countdown of 2015’s best Japanese music were it not for a 12-inch vinyl re-release courtesy of Tokyo underground record store Enban’s in-house label.

This is a marvellous development because it allows me to write about a collection of songs that would almost certainly have made last year’s countdown had I discovered it in time, and was an easy choice this time around. I wrote about the CD edition earlier in the year, so I shan’t go over the same ground in detail (read my earlier review here – the music’s basically the same) except to say that Safe Mode is an intimate little mini-album, recorded warm and up-close, both charming and disarming.

Combining subtle, intricately worked psychedelic elements with witty, sometimes surreal, simple yet intricately balanced folk and acoustic pop, Safe Mode‘s atmosphere is enhanced in all manner of little ways by tiny production choices and quirks of the recording process, from the ambient sounds of fingers sliding along guitar strings on Long Days with Television to the contrast between the wavering tone of the vintage pub piano and the highly compressed drum machine sound on The Return of Hamunaptra.

What’s most remarkable about this record is that for all its short runtime and the apparent simplicity and sparseness of its sound, there is just so much going on, both in the diversity of the songwriting and the imagination and/or serendipity that have gone into the recording and arrangement. While its appearance in this year’s rundown was only able to happen through a quirk of its release process, there should be no question that Safe Mode is a worthy inclusion and I’ll fight anyone who says otherwise.

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mmm: Safe Mode

Safe Mode

CD/R, CGCG Publishing, 2014

One of those unexpected pleasures that you can only get from impulsively purchasing a CD because you liked the jacket, Mmm seems to be a singer-songwriter and participant in various bands and musical projects, but Safe Mode is a decidedly solo work and possessed of the sort of up-close intimacy you’d expect from that.

Sung in a mixture of Japanese and English, the music also refuses to sit obviously in any particular melodic tradition. Rabbit Hole, for instance, has a distinctly postpunkish, alt rock edge that offsets the whimsy that colours tracks like Monotone. Meanwhile, opening track Blue blossoms into a sort of pastoral psychedelia as it progresses, with the gradual introduction of flute and piano, and a rhythm disconcertingly at odds with the melody. A similar, faintly psychedelic breakdown occurs in The Return of Hamunaptra, while additional instruments subtly share space with less easily decipherable sounds on the Donovan-esque I’d Rather Be.

In fact, throughout Safe Mode, ambiguous sounds abound in its ambience, from the rattles and clicks that underscore Long Days with Television to the gentle rustle that might be tape hiss or simply the shifting of the musician’s clothes or duvet covers (this is an album that practically screams, “I was recorded in a bedroom!” at you). This low-key but nonetheless ever-present ambient sound only adds to the warm, organic feel that contrasts with the computer-derived title and artwork, reconceiving the “safe mode” as a psychological state, shut off from the screaming noise that tries to intrude on your peace.

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