Tag Archives: Perfume

Kyary Pamyu Pamyu: Ninja Re Bang Bang

Over the past year or so, it seems that of Yasutaka Nakata’s two big mainstream producer/songwriter gigs, Perfume appear to have got the better deal on the singles, while Kyary Pamyu Pamyu has tended to do better for herself on album tracks. Part of that might be down to him having spent more time with Perfume so he knows what kind of thing works with them, partly it might be something to do with them just being the bigger of the two artists from a commercial point of view, at least for now. Mostly though, I think it’s got something to do with the way that in contrast to Perfume’s modern and sophisticated image, Kyary’s appeal is based on her offbeat kookiness, and so her music works best when it’s a bit off the wall, whereas singles, especially ones designed for big ad campaigns, are naturally a bit wary of anything too odd.

Either her commercial backers are starting to feel more comfortable with the viability of Kyary’s weird side or Nakata’s getting better at working that aspect of her into a more mainstream context though, because since last Autumn’s Fashion Monster, things have been getting a bit more interesting on the singles front and Ninja Re Bang Bang might be her best single since her debut, Ponponpon.

Unlike some of the more intense moments of Plus-tech Squeeze Box-influenced sugar-rush mayhem on last year’s Pamyu Pamyu Revolution album, Ninja Re Bang Bang is a fairly straightforward piece of bubblegum pop with a formula diverging little from the one that Nakata seems to have established for the standard Kyary single — the bouncy rhythm with a bit of an off-beat and the cheap, early-2000s Mini-Moni synths — but while there’s superficially and structurally not that much different between this and some of her more mediocre singles like Candy Candy, Ninja Re Bang Bang has a bit more of a kick.Perfume: Voice

There’s a formula that Nakata seems to have hit upon with Perfume a while back, which involves taking the slick, modern electropop elements of their sound, feeding 70s/80s kayoukyoku and new wave melodies through it, and embellishing with toy technopop bleeps and bloops, with the end result of something both aggressively modern, recognisably classic, and retro-futurist all at the same time. It’s a sound early capsule flirted with too, but it’s most obvious in songs like Laser Beam, with its YMO-influenced Asiatica, or in the way the chorus of Voice is only a couple of notes shy of avant-pop weirdos Hikashu’s Pike.Hikashu: Pike

This combination of classic, modern and retro-futurist not only enriches the sound, but also hits buttons in audiences that are plugged directly into positive sensors in their brains, feeding the sensations of innocence, optimism and a burgeoning confidence in Japan’s own sophistication and global emergence that the late 70s and early 80s evoke. It’s a feeling that goes way beyond mere national nostalgia too: it’s a sound that hooks in neatly to a lot of the positive notions of Japanese pop culture that exist abroad, sidestepping the uncomfortable and infantile cryptosexual fantasies of otaku culture and painting an image of Japan as the colourful, ultra-modern Oriental utopia it still in many ways is (and which Korea is rapidly in the business of usurping).

So to come back to Ninja Re Bang Bang, it kicks off with a little 8-bit synth flourish and then dives straight into one of those YMO-ish choruses from the starting gun, it pulls on all the retro Asian pop clichés it can in the instrumental breaks and ties it all down to the established Kyary rhythmical formula. There’s something like a verse in there somewhere that does fuck all melodically, but the song dispenses with it as quickly as it can in order to get back to the crucial business of just repeating that insanely catchy chorus over and over again, and the result is an utterly straightforward and quite lovely piece of bubblegum pop.

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Top 20 Releases of 2012: Afterword

As I said in the intro, this list was framed by my own fluctuating tastes and just what I happened to   have listened to this year. Jesse Ruins are a superb band who released their Dream Analysis EP via Captured tracks last February.I didn’t get a chance to hear it during the course of the year so it couldn’t make the list, but it’s probably a good record.

None-more-Kansai garage-noise extroverts Gezan also released an album that I didn’t get the chance to hear in 2012, but it was apparently good enough for Time Out Tokyo to rate it as one of the year’s best. Goth-Trad is another artist I didn’t get a proper chance to listen to, but many picked up. It features in the Time Out Tokyo list as well as Make Believe Melodies’ 2012 album roundup (along with other buzzed-about artists I still haven’t heard, like Taquwami)

And then there are albums that missed out on my Top 20 but which might have made it on another day. Sekaitekina Band’s debut album was good but I went for Underrated instead because I felt the musical development that had gone on between the two records instantly outdated the earlier release. Also there was a new album by capsule, Stereo Worxx, which had some very good stuff on it, but which by the end of the year I’d found I wasn’t really listening to.

I’m not going to do a “Top Tracks of 2012” series since most of my favourite tracks, especially in the indie and alternative spheres, are contained within the albums I’ve just written about, but there are a few excellent mainstream-ish pop tunes I’d like to flag up (all by girl groups, natch). As well as the Kyary Pamyu Pamyu album and the aforementioned capsule, Perfume’s Spending All My Time was really good.

Idol group Dempa Gumi inc.’s awesome, hyperactive cover of The Beastie Boys’ Sabotage is also worth revisiting, especially after having seen them perform it live last weekend.

Also, Korean girl group 2NE1’s I Love You was a great example of pop at the more sophisticated extreme.

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Perfume: Spending All My Time

Of all the reasons to love Perfume’s new song, Spending All My Time, the worst and best is that it’s guaranteed to annoy the shit out of loads of people.

“What’s going on? It’s just the same words and melody repeated over and over for four minutes! That’s not a song. And why are the lyrics in English? Perfume should sing in Japanese because that’s what people like about them. Plus the music doesn’t sound Japanese, it’s like some kind of 90s Euro house track. It just doesn’t sound like Perfume!”

Above are some complaints you might hear about this song. Look out for them so that you can privately dismiss the people making them as fools, because what you see above is a pretty good summary of everything great about Spending All My Time.

It’s just the same words and melody repeated over and over again. This is true. It’s also great. The biggest problem with Yasutaka Nakata’s songwriting over the past three and a half or so years since One Room Disco is that he tends to just make the same song over and over again. There’s a lot of clever and cool stuff going on in the production, but the basic structure of his songs is formulaic. There’s a mid-paced, plodding verse that breaks into the bouncy, catchy chorus. The chorus of Voice is magnificent — the kind of pop that makes your heart soar with giddy bubblegum joy — but you have to sit through a lot of nothing to get to it. Spending All My Time takes a leaf out of Swedish rockers Roxette’s book: Don’t bore us, get to the chorus. It is all chorus for the full four minute duration, and it’s catchy as fuck with it, which means that it’s not just pop music, but actually some kind of hyper-condensed superpop. The crystal meth, the Gelfling essence of pop.

This also could mark a return of sorts to the song development process that Nakata used to employ circa 2007, where he would be able to try out ideas with capsule and then export them to Perfume if they worked. Earlier this year, capsule released the song Feelin’ Alright, which even more than Spending All My Time, is all about repetition, with only a single phrase sung to the same melody, repeated for the entire song. It’s natural to be alarmed by something so sparse, and it took me a while to get into it, but it works and the repetition grinds its way into your head the way all great pop music should. Anything that suggests that the flow of ideas between capsule and Perfume might be back on is probably a good thing lest either band become stale.

It’s sung in English, and of course we can make much of the idea of English lyrics as a way of easing the group into overseas markets, which was almost certainly a consideration. I’m not convinced this was necessary in that sense, since I don’t think Perfume are really going to capture hit rather than niche status anyway, but it’s enough of an earworm that I can see some types of European club audiences going for it over the summer (although the idea of Perfume becoming a sort of Asian Vengaboys is terrifying). There is also a suggestion that the group themselves weren’t entirely happy with this as, “they feel Japanese ones are more seemingly meaningful.” Now I know some people get very protective about their pop music and feel very hurt by what they see as haters, but this point needs to be made:

All pop lyrics are shite.*

Spending All My Time’s lyrics are basically that a girl spends all her time loving someone, which she intends to do for ever. This basic sentiment comprises the lyrics to 90% of J-pop and all Nakata has done is cut out all the sappy poetry that clings like sticky, cloying residue around it. As a raw statement it’s a whole lot better for not being couched in bland, fluffy, pretentious terms that would be better suited to a biro scrawl on a teenage girl’s pencil case, and the single-minded way it’s drilled into the listener is entirely in keeping with Perfume’s almost Flying Lizards-esque habit of setting the bubblegum romantic off against robotic and mechanical.

What’s awkward on the ears about the lyrics is not in their content so much as how they scan in relation to the rhythm. Where Perfume have traditionally exaggerated the Japaneseness of their English pronunciation (“di-su-ko” or “ri-zu-mu”), here they do it straight, and grammatically it’s pretty sound, but the cadence is wrong. The stress on the word “spending” is the first syllable, but because of the way the word is repeatedly crammed into the melody, Perfume are sometimes forced to put the stress on the second syllable, rendering the sound unnatural. A more natural way of saying it in English would be to sometimes switch to “I spend”, where a stress on the second syllable is OK. It also mixes up the sounds while retaining both the sense of repetition and easy comprehension to the Japanese audience.

It’s not always a problem, and a habit for awkwardly-scanning lyrics can be as charming for one band (McCarthy) as they are annoying for another (The Manic Street Preachers). Since so much of Perfume’s image and appeal hinges on carefully synchronised moments of jittery awkwardness, the jury’s still out here.

The music doesn’t sound Japanese. Well, when has J-pop ever sounded Japanese? The sound we have today is a medley of different imported sounds. Spending All My Time sounds like a sort of 90s Euro house track, which is a sound that’s doing the revival circuit nowadays. Wonder Girls borrowed it on their last song, Like Money (which I discuss alongside another Perfume track here), and it’s got plenty of traction in the West too. This is what Yasutaka Nakata does: he finds trends in contemporary dance music production, copies them and adapts them. In fact ripping off and adapting ideas from contemporary foreign dance music is what created J-pop in the first place, from the synthpop of disco queen Chisato Moritaka to the decade-straddling factory sound of Tetsuya Komuro that formed the basis for about half of 1990s J-pop (the other half was produced by Takeshi Kobayashi, who was too busy ripping off The Beatles and Pink Floyd).

Spending My Time might not sound Japanese now, but that’s because it’s a new sound in the current market. Japanese pop is not a classical relic, never to be touched or tampered with except by trusted scribes who labour year on year to copy by hand its sacred teachings. It’s pop music, and pop music is about listening, stealing, adapting, and reforming ideas from wherever you find them.

As for it not sounding like Perfume, the same applies. The Perfume that made Linear Motor Girl didn’t sound like the Perfume that made Monochrome Effect, and the Perfume that made Edge didn’t sound like the Perfume that made Chocolate Disco. It’s only recent years that have seen their output congeal around such a similar sound, and the fact that they’re kicking on with something different is to be welcomed.

It’s easy to see how the group themselves might have been dismayed at the track given that their role in it is basically as an elaborate Speak & Spell for producer Nakata to play with in amongst all his synths and beats. For any fans who are upset that it dares step outside the established Perfume comfort zone (which let’s remember was only ever really established thanks to the need to provide reliable musical content for advertisements), those old songs they like aren’t going anywhere, so why not just listen to them on repeat and let the rest of us enjoy this rush of something different?

*Yes, your painstakingly researched list of exceptions is brilliant and admirable. Miss the point much?

NOTE ON THE VIDEO: There’s a short clip from the promotional video up, which sees the group reprising their uncanny valley robogirls schtick with added alien fingerpopping while locked in an old school building. Reference to The Girl Who Leapt Through Time there in the numbers on their arms (“time”, geddit?) but not much more to report without the full thing.

UPDATE: The full video (linked at the top) is now more or less available, even if Universal still won’t put it on the official page. Nothing much to add on it apart from that I dig the way the directors and choreographers they work with seem to be at least creating a distinctive atmosphere and style even when some of the psychic/magic stuff in it makes it just seem a bit Tommy Cooper.

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Sonmi~451 vs. The Windup Girl: Wonder Girls’ “Like Money” and Perfume’s “Spring of Life”

With the release earlier this year of Japanese electro-idol trio Perfume’s Spring of Life and Korean popsters Wonder Girls’ Like Money just as both groups are beginning to make attempts are reach out to Western audiences, it’s curious that both groups chose to adopt the personae of cyborgs, and I think the similarities and differences in their approaches says something about both the way the groups want to be perceived, as well as how they think we want to perceive them.

Now it’s obvious that the whole cyborg motif of both videos itself operates on a level of self parody, ironically commenting on the manufactured nature of this sort of pop music. You’ve got to be wary of letting the “irony” excuse act as a free pass for any kind of dubious imagery, but it’s important to bear in mind that in this case, it’s pretty clear cut that they’re both making fun of themselves a little and avoid taking the imagery too seriously.

That said, this is exactly what I’m going to do, so put your “you’re overanalysing this” and “it’s just pop music” hats away and grab your “pop culture is a vital window into how we perceive ourselves and each other” hoodie and let’s take a look.

The kind of cyborgs that Wonder Girls portray in Like Money lie somewhere between Austin Powers style fembots and full-on Terminators. Their goal is domination, but not that sort of domination. “Love me like money, love me like cars” — the message comes with an air of swagger and self-confidence, but it’s a materialistic message (to the point of parody, really), and the girls are clear that they themselves are material objects. Money, car, girl, they’re just one more item of bling and the song is a celebration of acquisitive consumerism, and their confidence is like an advertising spot: Buy me, because I’m worth it. Collaborating with that notorious whore Akon is just icing on the cake (Little-known fact: Akon will sing heavily autotuned guest vocals on your answerphone message in return for a hot meal and a set of panther-skin pillowcases). The video reflects this with its slick, shiny glitz, the tight-fitting, futuristic costumes and the speeding car, like a shit batmobile, that one of the girls is seen driving. It’s all whiz, bang and flash, worshipping the pre-Lehman gods amid the remains of a shattered landscape.

The Perfume we see in Spring of Life are a different kind of product entirely. For a start, the video is much more dense with meaning, drawing on Perfume’s own frequent habit of portraying themselves as malfunctioning robot dolls as well as a long sci-fi tradition of lonely androids. The tragedy of the artificial human is always that no matter how much they mimic, they can never become the real thing, and the video exploits that by repeatedly showing the girls acting out the kinds of activities “normal” girls are supposed to enjoy (eating, applying cosmetics, chatting on the phone) with jerky, windup movements that drag the actions down into the uncanny valley.

These moments of awkwardness also reflect the Japanese otaku-derived moe fetish, with the tragedy and vulnerability inherent in their failure to be “normal” girls playing on the protective instincts of the audience. They don’t want your money like Wonder Girls, they want your love and protection. The image of Nocchi slumped against a wall, repetitively rolling her head from side to side is disturbingly reminiscent of the images that flooded the news of mistreated children in Romanian orphanages after the collapse of the Eastern Bloc, while the tear we see running down her cheek at one point drives the message home and accentuates the contrast with the cheerful chorus.

Perfume also benefit from having a talented and idiosyncratic production and choreography team who have worked with them for a long time, with the result that they are able to inhabit the roles set out for them in the video whilst retaining their own distinctive identity. The set design is simpler but more carefully thought-out, and dance routine is genuinely quirky and joyful. The song, while being basically a repetition of the same basic recent Perfume formula, is layered with offbeat production-side digressions, slipping into minimal techno at one point, before just as quickly giving way to chiptune. They aren’t just Asian cyborgs, they’re their own Asian cyborgs.

Both songs and both videos nevertheless share elements in common. You could choose to make a big deal out of Wonder Girls singing in English and Perfume sticking to Japanese — I think it’s self-evident that Perfume are being more cautious, trying not to subvert their own appeal, while Wonder Girls are more chameleonic from the start and are going all-out for whatever market they can grasp. That said, a quick reading reveals that neither of the songs themselves have much on the surface to do with the accompanying videos, and both songs treat girls as passive items with love on the other side of the trade. Like Money is love as full-on aggressive capitalism, while Spring of Life is love as as self-completion (with those who don’t possess it as tragically incomplete creatures).

Another curious thing lurking under the surface is an idea which I’ve touched on before, which is the idea of robots or androids as a natural fit for how Asian women are perceived by Westerners, which makes me wonder if somewhere along the line, the producers of these videos have internalised this idea of Westerners thinking “they all look the same” and given up on trying to present them as in some way individual. Coupled with that is the still lingering image of Asian women as being somehow servile and submissive, doll-like creatures and there could be an interesting dialogue going on between Western perceptions of Asian women and Asian perceptions of Western perceptions of Asian women. Are they pandering to the West’s simplistic attitude towards Asian femininity, or perhaps even mocking it? We should be shaky about investing this thesis with too much significance, firstly because it’s not confined to female idols, and also because the image of cute female androids is every bit as popular and then some among Japanese and Korean audiences as it is in Europe and America, but seeing two groups seize on this image just as they try to break into Western markets at least flags up the possibility of a racial element to the semiotics.

To look at it from another angle though, it’s also true that Asia, and particularly Japan and Korea, has a deservedly strong reputation in robotics and genetics, which has been cemented in Western and Asian minds by science fiction over the years. In the case of Wonder Girls, they are part of a trend among a certain type of girl group towards uniformity and synchronisation, while Perfume encourage pretty distinct differentiation between the three members and have employed sci-fi elements in many of their songs in a nod to their otaku idol and Daft Punk-influenced electro roots, so perhaps on a purely individual level, we can say that it’s an appropriate image for both groups in different ways.

Now as I say, yeah, they’re not taking themselves 100% seriously, but but even as a joke, it’s one that says a lot about the pop cultural ideas behind them and about the groups themselves. In the end though, the thing they may have caught onto is perhaps the most significant nugget of cultural data of them all: that robots, cyborgs and replicants of all types are just fucking cool.

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Strange Boutique (May 2012)

My Japan Times column this month follows up on some ideas from Daniel Robson’s Perfume interview in the same paper the other week, looking at how they might go about making a mark overseas. I primarily talk about the marketing rather than the music in this one, although I don’t think there’s anything in their sound that would necessarily cause them problems. It’s distinctive, which could see them bracketed as “too weird” by some particularly musically unadventurous listeners, but on balance, it’s probably probably a good thing. They have a lot of repetition in the choruses, which might help them overcome the language barrier, at least partially, and even their less striking recent stuff is still pretty sound pop music.

In the article, where I drop the phrase “cyborgs-on-the-verge-of-a-nervous-breakdown”, I was thinking of the last few minutes of this live clip, which is still one of my favourite pieces of J-pop ever. I think that in years to come, when people look back on now with the rose-tinted filter of history, it’s this that they’ll pick up on, not musical pink slime like Exile:

As I say, I think there’s a lot to be positive about, but a lot will depend on what tie-ups they get with overseas promoters and media. What they’ve done so far (making the music available to download via iTunes) is the bare minimum of what every pop group in the world should be doing. That it seems remarkable just shows how backwards the Japanese music industry is. It’s worth noting that Yasutaka Nakata’s other production project, Kyary Pamyu Pamyu, seems to be doing OK, although the obvious caveats regarding YouTube hits vs. actual sales apply, through taking a more (visually at least) offbeat tack, which seems to support my thesis that niche marketing is the best way to make J-pop work. Kyary’s fashion connection ties her into an interest group outside of the usual Japanophile crowd (and really, the existing overseas J-pop fan community is probably something any sane label will want to keep at arm’s length) but she’s striking and exotic enough that she stands out. Perfume have a strong image, but their niche is less clear, and I think it will take a while for them to find it. The pop-cyborg thing is cool, but it’s hard to know what it ties into. For example, stick them in a sci-fi film as some futuristic pop group and they’ll get lots of the comics/SF crowd thinking it’s cool, but at the same time, it’s also a kind of self-satire, which means the audience won’t necessarily transfer thinking “it’s cool” to thinking “they’re cool”. I think children should probably be the primary focus, because they’re less hung up on stuff like that, but make sure whatever you do with them is cool enough that an older crowd can convince themselves that they’re getting into it in a sort of hipster ironic way.

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capsule: Stereo Worxxx

I reviewed capsule’s new album, Stereo Worxxx, for The Japan Times last week. It’s an interesting record that does a few different things and seems like a transitional stage in the duo’s career, combining elements of recent capsule material with ideas that have more in common with Yasutaka Nakata’s work with Perfume. I got more space than usual for the review this time and I was able to say everything I wanted to about the album in the review itself, so I’ll just leave you here with the video for the first track, Feelin’ Alright:

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Kyary Pamyu Pamyu: Candy Candy

I got some flack last autumn for my jibe about Perfume’s recent singles being glorified advertising jingles, with one of the main arguments being “So what?” I disagree in that my diagnosis was that Perfume’s music had exhibited a drop in quality and I was blaming the constraints of advertising work rather than seeing the connections with advertising and deducing from that that the music must be rubbish, but at its core it is a fundamentally good point. Since pop music, and especially bubblegum pop, relies on simple, easy-to-grasp melodic hooks and repetitive, catchy choruses, it shares many characteristics with advertising jingles; the only difference is the product that they are trying to sell (ad jingles are selling carpet cleaning products or racist orange juice while pop songs are selling, well, themselves).

Ten years ago, there would generally be some distinction made between the official video and the commercial, even if the former strongly hinted at the latter, as with this idol pop classic by Aya Matsuura…

…and this shampoo advert:

Kyary Pamyu Pamyu’s latest song, Candy Candy, blurs even that fine distinction with the advert, the video and the song’s lyrical content all unified around the theme of “GIVE MONEY TO GLICO CONFECTIONARY PRODUCTS!”

(Videos of the commercials themselves can be streamed here.)

Of course this kind of whoring about is nothing new, with The New Seekers/Hilltop’s I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing being written to sell soft drinks to fans of cloying sub-McCartney sentimentalism in the early 70s, and for that matter pretty much every great artist of the Renaissance having made a living shilling for the Catholic church. Obviously the difference is that (gobsmacking levels of corruption aside) people at the time of The Renaissance found genuine spiritual inspiration in the religious themes that art carried (and which it often transcended). Even with The New Seekers/Hilltop, what you have here is Coca Cola trying to appropriate the idealistic, hippy-era message of peace and love for the purpose of providing global branding for their product – that is to say that the cultural driving force behind the music comes from a movement with origins beyond the advert’s narrow commercial purpose, with Coca Cola simply parasitically latching themselves onto it after the fact.

Candy Candy pretends to no such countercultural ties, with even the Harajuku subcultural finesse that gave Kyary’s Ponponpon so much of its spark here watered down. What it does do is link into a tradition of bubblegum pop (the clue’s in the name) and confectionary references that goes right back to the genre’s origins. Again though, the meaning is different. When The Archies sang “Pour a little sugar on it honey,” they weren’t talking about sweets, they were talking about (whisper it…) s-e-x.

Similarly, when French teen idol France Gall sang “When the barley sugar / Flavored with aniseed / Sinks in Annie’s throat / She is in heaven,” she may have thought she was singing about lollipops, but writer Serge Gainsbourg was most definitely not writing about them — and the set designers on this video were clearly operating on Gainsbourg’s rather than Gall’s level:

Now in the 1960s, for all the era’s (probably undeserved) reputation for free love and youth rebellion, sex was still very much a taboo topic for pop music, which meant that children on the cusp of puberty, who were the target audience of bubblegum music, could only play out their new sexual feelings vicariously through metaphors that their parents were too innocent to decipher. In present day Japan, where the image of teenage girls is hypersexualised to frequently disturbing extremes, this kind of metaphor is mundane (it’s present in a limited fashion in the way the lyrics pun on the English verb “chew” and the Japanese onomatopoeia “chu” — the sound of a kiss), and in fact many girls reject it. The kind of cuteness Kyary Pamyu Pamyu represents is basically a rejection of the sort of sexual objectification represented by AKB48, which it does by retreating into a pre-teen, prepubescent world, both sexually and socially. This is part of the key to her attraction, because contained within this kind of childishness is also a kind of punkish self-reliance rather than the helpless dependence of Japanese culture’s more eroticised preteen fantasies – she doesn’t need boys and she takes no shit from no one. It’s also what makes Kyary Pamyu Pamyu the perfect marketing doll to reach these kinds of female consumers. The character she plays may be attractive to guys, but she exists independently of the male gaze and exemplifies a child’s self-absorption, selfishness and I-WANT-IT-NOW! simplistic consumerism.

As Kyary sings in Candy Candy:

“I heard your request, but I didn’t have time to attend to it / Because, because after all, I’m a girl, so ‘now’ is precious.”

With the melodies too, Yasutaka Nakata understands Kyary’s image, and as he hones her musical style down, he is drawing further away from the early-capsule/post-Shibuya-kei musical motifs he employed in Ponponpon and more and more towards ultra-simplified nursery rhyme melodies. It’s better than the thoroughly naff Tsukema Tsukeru, and musically it’s still a fairly effective application of Nakata’s chosen Pamyu Pamyu formula of “don’t use too many notes, have one melodic hook, and have a chorus where the lyrics are just the same two sounds repeated endlessly”, but among his various contemporary projects, it’s third grade stuff.

The problem is that the appeal of bubblegum lies in how it balances on the edge between childishness and sophistication. It projects something superficially simple, but peel away the layers and there is something more complex at its heart. Nakata’s best work with Perfume does this, usually by interlinking different musical elements in a creative and surprising way, although he’s not averse to slipping in a little Gainsbourg-style naughtiness where he can get away with it. 

Candy Candy, on the other hand, is like the onion that graces its promotion video. Peel away the layers and all you get is more of the same. There is no heart, even in the limited sense that bubblegum pop offers, only surface. It is conceptually smaller than even The New Seekers/Hilltop’s cynical reduction of naïve idealism to what is at best empty commercialism (with a dubious side order of cultural imperialism). The self-reliant island state that is key to Kyary’s charm and appeal is subverted once she is reduced to a dancing doll for a commercial entity like Glico. Thanks to the overt commercial branding across all facets of its being, Candy Candy’s message is simply “Candy, candy, candy. Buy candy. Buy candy from Glico. Because girls are shallow and superficial.” It’s music made totally subservient to advertising and branding, and it’s worse for it.

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Chocolate Discord: Noise inside idol music / Idol music inside noise

Moving on from Bo Ningen, Momoiro Clover and Dempa Gumi inc., it’s also worth looking into the mechanics of how compatible experimental/alternative music and idol pop really is. One way that some friends of mine and I examined this recently was by a number of us going away and trying to tackle songs by Perfume in each artist’s own style. The result, entitled Chocolate Discord (named after a band formed by some of my Fukuoka friends) was made just for fun and given out as a free gift to audience members at a friend of mine’s Valentine’s Day live event last month.

Chocolate Discord (Perfume covers project)

Firstly, a quick note on the artists who took part. None of them are famous, and nearly all of them produced their covers quite quickly (time frames ranged from a couple of weeks to a single afternoon). The majority of the songs are by non-Japanese artists based in or at least who spend a lot of time in Japan. There was no particular decision on my part to make it like this — it just ended up this way. Perhaps the short timeframe and the white man’s legendary lack of fastidiousness combined to exclude their more conscientious Japanese peers. The musicians cover a range of styles, but generally lean towards the avant-garde/noise end of the musical spectrum. However, there are electronic, indie and rock musicians also involved. I’ve added Soundcloud links where the artists have made their songs available online.

Now I think it’s kind of debatable now to what extent Perfume are an idol group anymore. In fact, apart from their naff “Akihabalove” diversion and maybe that pair of shockingly bad early songs they made in Hiroshima, they’ve always had a bit too much of Yasutaka Nakata’s post-Shibuya-kei fashion-consciousness to them, too much of a distinctive, easily recognisable style for them to be absorbed entirely into idoldom. However, it’s certainly fluffy, bubblegum pop that hits a lot of the buttons of idol music, so bearing in mind these caveats, I think there were some interesting points that came out of it.

One thing that was true almost right across the board was that nearly all the cover versions, and certainly those by artists at the more avant-garde end of the scale, tried to bring some degree of minimalism to Yasutaka Nakata’s original arrangements. Part of this, I suspect, was a combination of the short timeframe and musicians’ own laziness. It’s also a logical response for someone looking for a new approach to Nakata’s style, given that more than almost any producer in Japan, he prefers to over- rather than under-produce his music.

A lot of the groups extracted just one or two aspects of Perfume’s originals and built their own material around those. The no wave/postpunk band Uruseeyo’s take on Baby Cruising Love just takes the title, which the singer bellows over and over while the rest of the band build a doom-laden, crashing industrial cacophony around it. Human Wife’s brutal take on Game is also a case in point (you may want to turn your volume down to safe levels about now):

Rhythm guitarist James Hadfield (who doesn’t hate Perfume as much as drummer Clay Jarvis) explains the process thus:

“Human Wife instinctively recoil from any song with more than three chords in it (we’ve discovered that one chord is often more than enough), so it didn’t take long to rule out just about every track in the Perfume canon. In the end, it was a toss-up between “Game” and “Edge”, and since Trinitron were already planning to do the latter (and would probably do it far better than we could), we went for the former. I’d originally thought of taking the opening chord sequence and playing it in a monolithic sludge/doom metal style, but Clay, our drummer and Christian Vander-esque MD, felt that it sounded too much like grunge. He voted that we do it in a Brainbombs-esque midtempo scuzz rock version, which seemed to work better, and after a few run-throughs we’d pared the song down to a couple of basic chord progressions and a whole lot of distortion. We recorded three takes, overdubbed vocals on the best one, then Clay took the recordings home and spent about five minutes mastering them. Nakata would be proud.”

Electronic project Floppy Knobs’ version of Linear Motor Girl just takes the lyrics, translates them into English, passes them through a voice synthesiser and chops them up, combining the result with fragments the producer already had lying around.

“Well, it started out as something else. Lately, I’ve been making instrumental music using only an iPhone and had thought to try and remix an unused track I had previously been working on. Anyways, it ended up sparking my synapses in all kinds of un-usable ways and on the morning I had arranged to hand in the piece, it went out the window and thereupon it was decided to opt for a Jac Berrocal / Flying Lizards / pop-on-a-rope approach.”

Curiously though, despite the musical backdrop not being taken from the original song, the repetitive, chiming loop in the background is startlingly reminiscent of another Perfume song, Chocolate Disco, which appears in two versions by other artists on the collection.

Kanterbury, a.k.a. Kantaro Sato of indie rock band Randy & The Pyramids, did an irony-laced, exaggeratedly cheerful take on it. He says:

“The most important point in the song is the phrase “Chocolate Disco” itself. It’s a funny phrase. I liked it. The original has a story to tell, but my version is the anguished cry of a lonely guy who’s desperate to get chocolate on Valentine’s Day, although basically I just wanted to do a song like Prince. The other thing is the line “The classroom turned into a dancefloor.” I repeat that line twice because it’s the most ridiculous line in the song. It’s a good phrase.”

Kaki, a.k.a. Zana Fabjan Blazic also draws attention to this phrase in her epic, dark electro version of the song, intoning the line blankly during a lull in the arrangement:

Neither Kanterbury nor Kaki take explicitly minimal aproaches, although Zana’s vocals on her “Shockoladige Disko” are at least emotionally minimalist, and the beat grinds the original’s bounce down into a relentless, Teutonic panzer assault, stripping the original of its joie de vivre, leaving a hollow rhetorical shell. In this sense, it’s reminiscent of the approach to cover versions of Zana’s Slovenian countrymen Laibach, and like many of the artists on Chocolate Discord, it interprets pop music primarily by stripping layers away, even if it then builds it back up quite slickly in its own image.

I worked with Zana and co-vocalist Kaname K, as well as producer N’toko on Trinitron’s version of Edge. Again, we stripped away a lot from the song, basing it on the more minimal Love the World b-side version than the eleborate remix that appeared on Triangle and replacing the disco beat with a motorik Krautrock drum pattern. We also stripped away the heart-stopping harmonies in the “loving you” segment, instead having Zana and Kaname intone the lyrics, one in English and one in Japanese, overlapping their words to create a disorientating babble of voices:

Part of the reason for cutting this stuff is simply because it’s difficult, but also some of the sweeter parts of pop music just don’t work in alternative rock. If you’re The Jesus and Mary Chain or The Velvet Underground, you can take honey-sweet 60s pop and make it dark and forboding, but that’s because both types of music share a common set of blues-based chord progressions. J-pop on the other hand, does not have a common base with most alternative/indie rock. Krautrock tried to abandon blues, but in the case of the Neu! style minimalism that Trinitron sometimes plays with, they also abandoned pretty much everything else too. Playing motorik with more than two chords is gilding the lily.

Sato picked up on some of the same points with his and rakugo performer/former Lolipop Guitar Lesson backing singer Koyomi’s version of Vitamin Drop. Rather than gutting the original as Trinitron and many other groups did, they kept mostly to the original structure, but performed it as a guitar-led piece of 60s pop/indie rock. Says Sato:

“We chose Vitamin Drop because it was one of the most pop songs Perfume have, and we just tried to make an indie version of it. The chord progressions are actually very strange though, and quite complicated chords. Before I tried to cover it, I didn’t think of it as a J-pop style song. It sounded more sophisticated, simpler, but actually it was very J-pop. It uses a lot of jazz chord progressions, and the chord changes twice in the space of one bar, which is typical for Japanese pop.

On the other hand, the synth in the original version of Vitamin Drop keeps going on in one speaker, which productionwise is quite radical. There are lots of things that make it seem simpler than it really is.”

Jazz chords are a staple of Shibuya-kei, and should probably be attributed primarily to Nakata’s background, although Japanese pop generally has since the 50s and 60s been strongly jazz- rather than R&B-influenced. Deceptive simplicity is also a feature of Nakata’s work, but it’s also a feature of a lot of the best idol music. Something bright and brash to catch your attention, but something complex happening once you get in. Momoiro Clover take simple melodies and arrange them in an unusual and often complex way, not wearing the process on their sleeves so much as hitting you round the face with it, but with Perfume the complexity insinuates its way into you more subtly.

Tokyo-based noisenik Dave McMahon was possibly the most enthusiastic participant in the whole enterprise, producing three separate tracks with different groups or projects. I’ll leave him to outline each track in his own words:

Ne~e – Shigai:

“This was an obvious choice for Shigai to cover because of the way the jaunty form and insipidly optimistic lyrics seemed to present a nice potential contrast with our sexually repressed hooligan posturing. We’ve used samples of Yuukorin and Bakunyuu Yankie in the past, so I guess there’s a sort of intersection with the dank underboob of idol culture there. Our regular co-conspirators from Napalm Death is Dead / Frozen Panty and His Dirty Hearts are also confirmed Momoclo fans, so it seems to be a recurring thread – maybe even moreso in the psychosexually scatalogical noise/grind scene than with other areas of the J-underground because of the Maruo Suehiro esque Undo-Gi sporting paedopop qualities of acts like Aka Inu Shimai and the Akiba vibes of Kuzuha, Gejirekuto Orugan, Abisheika, etc… Chris and Kenny weren’t familiar with the track, so I boshed together the pitch-shifted tatters of the original track’s intro in my computer, before heading out to the studio, reaming that through all my effects and felching the results back into the PC for further abuse. I managed to get hold of Chris one night after work to record do a vocal take down a Nishi Shinjuku alleyway, around the corner from Los Apsom, just before last train time.”

575 – Jahiliyyah

“My initial idea for this was to do a ‘straighter’, chugging drone reading, following the actual song structure fairly closely and with a full, multitracked vocal. To this end, I supplied the others with a recording of me jamming along on synth and FX whilst listening to the original on headphones (in the same studio session as with the initial Ne~e detonations) and sent it to Ezra, James and Cal, hoping to get at least one sticky, four-way, collective session after they’d each had their own individually wicked way with my discharge. Schedule constraints ruled this out, but luckily the dark master Cal was on hand to sort it all out ‘in the mix’. The final cut is probably not recognisable as 575 even to those who know what they’re looking for, but it definitely sounds like Jahiliyyah and rest assured that to keep the lawyers fed and clothed, there are still some samples of the actual song drooping feebly forth at strategic points.”

Dream Fighter – Hitodama: 

“I got unreasonably excited about the prospect of recording this as an ‘actual song’ with ‘clearly defined’ multitracked parts well before I actually had any idea of how I was going to tackle it, having never ever done such a thing in all my years as a ‘musician’. I knew that I wanted to use my reed organ and guitar, and was thinking along the lines of Galaxie 500 and Space Needle, as well as Dolly Collins’ organ arrangements. With the deadline looming, I found YouTube vids of folk doing guitar and iPad covers, worked out the chords, improvised around them for a few days to try and strike something like a stylistic fit and then set about recording on the last night before the deadline. Unfortunately, in a schoolboy error, I neglected to lay down any type of rhythm track or metronome and started with two layers of reed organ taped in my kitchen, before decamping to the studio from 1am, to get the two guitar parts and doubled up vocals. Seeing as they were all simple parts, I’d expected to be done in about an hour, but the eccentric timekeeping of the organ tracks kept throwing me off and had me in the studio until after the first train had already gone. The timing is still clearly out, but hey ho… I’m not sure where the idea to use birdsong came from, but in the end the dawn chorus, replete with cock-a-doodle doing seems to fittingly frame a fitful night battling with the creeping fear and sadness of the subconscious… or… ‘dream fighting’… if you will…”

These are really the kinds of techniques that these musicians would employ in covers of pretty much anything — stripping away the parts of the song that don’t work with what they’re trying to do and either cutting out the beating heart to replace it in a new body, or just selecting a few prime cuts, dicing them and making a casserole. In terms of idol music, what does it reveal?

Obviously from a musical perspective, it reveals what we knew from the start: that these are two opposite poles of the music scene, with little overt similarity in sound or style. However, what’s come through in previous posts this week is also the idea of the “anarchic energy” and “anything goes” nature of idol music, as well as the power to bring you back to a childlike way of thinking about music. Bearing that in mind, I think what comes though in these covers is something similar. There is a cavalier air towards the source material rather than a sombre and respectful approach, a sense that the musician can pick and choose which bits they like, taking a bite here and there, chucking away, discarding bits that taste bad, mashing them up together into a paste like Jahiliyyah or only eating the red bits like Human Wife. There’s also an attitude like children kicking over towers made of building blocks in the gleeful way some of these songs are mutilated, or more subtly of rearranging letter blocks to say rude words as in the way the likes of Kaki and Kanterbury elegantly but mischievously altered the meaning of Chocolate Disco.

The full compilation is available to download from this link for a while, although obviously it is ABSOLUTELY NOT for commercial use:

V/A: Chocolate Discord

1. Ne~e – Shigai
2. L-I-N-E-A-R Motor Girl – Floppy Knobs
3. Edge – Trinitron
4. Chocolate Disco – Kanterbury
5. 575 – Jahiliyyah
6. Baby Cruising Love – Uruseeyo
7. GAME – Human Wife
8. Dream Fighter – Hitodama
9. Vitimin Drop – Kanterbury and Koyomi
10. Shockoladige Disko – Kaki

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Aira Mitsuki x Saori@Destiny: Park of the Safari

CD, D-Topia Universe (2011)

Both Aira Mitsuki and Saori@Destiny emerged blinking into the light in that brief period following Perfume’s transition from underground idol wannabes to bona fide mainstream pop phenomenon when it seemed as if technopop was going to be big. Songs like Aira Mitsuki’s Colorful Tokyo Sounds No.9 and China Discotica seemed designed to sweep in riding Perfume’s slipstream. However, when the gates to pop stardom subsequently clanged shut behind Kashiyuka, Nocchi and A-chan, both singers went through a period of transition, embracing the plastic sounds of technopop that Perfume had started to abandon after Linear Motor Girl and pushing the techno angle of their music in a more frantic direction.

To be honest, Mitsuki’s rather fine Robot Honey aside, none of it was that striking, the tunes not really catchy enough to work as pop, and the techno elements too tacky to really function as credible dance music either. Bearing that in mind, it’s a pleasant surprise to find that this collaboration between Mitsuki and Saori@Destiny is probably the best thing either of them have done.

There’s nothing revolutionary in here, but there’s plenty of interest. The thundering beats and cheesy 80s hair metal guitars that kick off first track Gate or Exit make an arresting opening statement, with the saccharine sweet vocodered vocals offsetting it in a gaudily effective way. Discovery is in more familiar territory, although the synths and beats continue to do their own melodramatic thing in the background. Curiously, it also borrows the same stock vocal sample around which Yasutaka Nakata built capsule’s The Time is Now.

Panama is probably the best straight pop moment on the album, with the sort of breezy chorus and sweet chord progression along with which one can imagine crowds of technopop fans doing that strange choreographed arm waving thing they do (the one that always makes them look like they’re in a cult, you know the one) and a fine piece of work it is too.

Of the two solo tracks on the album, Mitsuki’s Umbrella sounds like it should be a straight idol song, with its comedy pratfall timpani recalling Aya Matsuura’s superior Yasuharu Konishi-produced Ne~e. The trouble with idol music is that it’s not just the idol’s image that you’re selling but also their character, and while hiding Aira Mitsuki’s voice behind autotune works for as long as she’s a sci-fi robot barbie doll, in this song it reinforces the former at the expense of the latter. It’s the kind of song that needs to display the singer’s real voice in all its amateurish glory.

Saori@Destiny’s solo offering, Last Song, comes over like a Perfume B-side from about five years ago, with its grinding synth intro recalling Perfume’s Game and the main song’s disco pulse hinting at Electro World. It’s not as good as either song, but it works on its own terms as a pleasant enough dreamy electropop song.

It’s far from a perfect album though. Ballads, or indeed slow songs of any kind, rarely ever work in this genre since they rely on making an emotional connection that the cyberpop sheen actively works against, and the cheesy Euro-thump of closing number Special Link (the theme song from the computer game Soul Master) suggests that both singers’ work is still stuck appealing to a specialised and predominantly otaku-based audience. Nevertheless, for all its clumsiness and rough edges, Park of the Safari seems to offer a step forward for both Saori@Destiny and Aira Mitsuki if not in terms of widening their audience, at least in terms of musical diversity and quality.

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Strange Boutique (December 2012)

Here’s my Japan Times end-of-year roundup column. I’ve not much to add really other than that AKB48 are really the worst thing ever. I do think it’s worth mentioning (and this is my view, not that of the japan Times editorial section) that I really don’t think SMAP’s charity and fundraising work gives them license to use the Tohoku tragedy as a marketing hook off which to hang their new Greatest Hits album that they rushed out in time for their Beijing trip. Giving 5% off the sale price to charity is a fine gesture, but calling the album SMAP Aid, with that cutesy sticking plaster logo, is just cashing in on tragedy and they should be called out on it.

At the bottom of the article, there’s also a little box where I give my top five girl-group bubblegum pop tunes of the year. I’ve already posted one or two of the clips, so sorry for any repetition. Anyway, if you want to check them out, here they are:

1. Perfume: Laser BeamI’ve written about this extensively before, so I’ll just add here that I agree with Patrick from Make Believe Melodies that the single mix is better than the over-fussy album mix.

2. Kyary Pamyu Pamyu: PonponponAgain, not much to say about this other than that it’s magnificently stupid, even without the video.

3. Girls’ Generation: Mr. TaxiThis is actually good for a lot of the same reasons as Ponponpon (i.e. the chorus is simple, catchy and features just them doing a silly dance and repeating the same couple of nonsense sounds over and over again), but it’s also  important for bringing a bit of modern electro polish, sex and glamour into the Japanese pop scene.

4. 2NE1: I Am the BestTotally stupid, but really quite musically radical when you pull it apart. 2NE1 are by far the most fun group out of the 2011 K-pop pack.

5. Momoiro Clover: Mirai BowlAnother let’s-chuck-everything-in-and-see-what-happens song. On its own, I don’t think I’d like any individual part of this song, but the way all these completely incompatible musical segments are chucked together makes it so much more than the sum of its constituents. Add in the cheesy theatrical drama section that goes with it and you have a minor idol pop-opera masterpiece. Also the last thing they did with the beautiful Akari Hayami (a.k.a. “Blue”) still in the group (chokes back sobs).

If I were to add some more, I’d say:

6. Seifuku Kojo Iinkai: Da! Da! Datsu genpatsu no Uta — Nothing special about the tune, but idol pop with an angry anti-nuclear message in 2011? Hell yeah.

7. Secret: Shy Boy — Infectiously happy pop tune that isn’t quite sure whether it’s trying to be a 50s doo-wop tune or a 60s bubblegum-Motown pastiche, and then remembers it’s a K-pop song and shoves in an absurdly incongruous rap segment. Wonder Girls pulled the same trick on Be My Baby, but they over-egged the production a bit so I’ll go for this bouncy number instead.

8. Nozomi Sasaki: Pa-pe-pi-pu Pa-pe-pi-pu Pa-pe-pi-pu-po — Ridiculously annoying, stupidly catchy, gleefully, calculatedly nonsensical, Sasaki’s terrible singing voice gives it an air of almost punky couldn’t-give-a-fuckery, and those wonderfully cheap 80s synths just get me every time. Awful song. I love it.

9. Afterschool: Let’s Step Up — Not really a proper song so much as an album intro, but tapdancing electropop? The little Riverdance thing they do in the middle? Someone has clearly decided somewhere that the rules of pop don’t apply to them, and if there’s one thing that 2011 proved, it’s that whatever we thought the rules were, they’re not.

10. Momoiro Clover Z: Rodo Sanka — Showa Era nostalgia abounds in this worker’s anthem, written by Ian Parton of The Go! Team. After Girls’ Generation made an album almost entirely full of songs by Western songwriters, it’s interesting to see a Japanese idol group go the same path and come up with something completely different but no less striking. And yeah, I know I had another song by basically the same group earlier — so I cheated.

There are probably a few other’s I could put in — T-ara had one or two good songs, and 2NE1 and Perfume both had one or two more really good songs — but I’ll leave it at a clear ten.

[Edit: Added in Secret at No.7. and Nozomi Sasaki at No.8. Can’t believe I forgot such an adorable pair of little tunes.]

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