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Profile: Satoru Ono

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.

CD, Second Royal, 2005

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:

CD, Second Royal, 2007

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.

 

CD, Second Royal, 2010

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.

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Friends: Let’s Get Together Again

Vinyl, Second Royal (2011)

This review originally appeared in Japanese on Goblin.mu.

Having secured their claim as home to Japan’s answer to chillwave with last year’s Hotel Mexico album “His Jewelled Letter Box”, Kyoto’s Second Royal Records seem intent on staking out ground in every indie buzz genre with the lo-fi beach pop of indie power trio Friends, currently available to hear online as it awaits a vinyl release later this autumn.

The music is basically feelgood, summery 1960s pop of the sort that was the stock in trade of The Beach Boys and any number of girl groups of that period. However, the sweet melodies exist in a constant state of tension with the fuzz-drenched lo-fi production. Sometimes, as on closing number “Cruel Sea”, the melody is almost drowned by it, while songs like “When I’m Asleep”, singer Shota Kaneko’s voice reaching the listener like distant echoes from the back of a cave, sound like the work of some kind of half-decomposed zombie Phil Spector, and one suspects that’s the point.

Friends: Good For Us

The Jesus and Mary Chain pulled off a similar trick in the early 1980s, with tunes recalling the innocence of classic rock & roll which the band brutally attacked with chainsaw feedback, reflecting the relocation of the music from the sunny Californian shores of the 60s to rainswept, economically depressed Thatcher-era Glasgow. The band’s obviously deep love and enormous respect for the likes of The Shangri-las was set against a postpunk rage that needed to tear at the heart of rock & roll (not to mention a hero-worshipping relationship with The Velvet Underground).

With Friends, however, the lo-fi production feels less frought with ambivalence, as if the band are paying tribute in equal parts to 60s America and 80s Britain, not to mention absorbing the atmosphere of any number of contemporary international indiepop artists. Rather than taking a chainsaw to rock & roll, they are carefully crafting an identity out of its history.

And identity is at the core of what this kind of music is about. Bands like Friends, from the hug-me band name, down through the gorgeous, nostalgic melodies, to the amateurish production are all about making their audience feel comfortable and at home. The feedback and fuzz here comes neither out of necessity (it’s not that difficult to record a relatively clean, clear sounding album nowadays) nor desire to lash out, but rather functions like an Instagram photo filter, marking out the band’s indie subcultural position, and providing a sonic identifier for fans already inclined to listen to such music. “Listen to this,” it says, “We are one of you.” That said, they went a bit too far with it — at several points it becomes difficult to actually hear what is going on, which is a shame considering how pretty the songs here are

Part of what this means is that a band like Friends will never be as important as the pioneering artists in whose footsteps they follow; however, the good thing is that of course lo-fi recording of this type really does sound incredibly cool, especially when combined with tunes as classically beautiful as “I Think I Love You” and “Good For Us”. The lyrics, where they emerge from behind the squalls of distortion, seem for the most part simple, unrefined declarations of feelings, unpolluted by the fashionista posing of similar-sounding bands like The Raveonettes, and all the more appealing for that. Finally, the way the band rattle their way through these ten short, sharp, tightly focussed melodies in just over twenty-five minutes gives the whole album a genuinely intimate, analogue feeling, as if the band had just knocked out the whole thing in a mid-sixties American suburban garage on a Sunday afternoon.

What that says about life in a digitally-connected Japanese urban metropolis in 2011 is another question, but the answer probably begins with the words, “Wouldn’t it be nice…”

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