Tag Archives: Teen Runnings

Top 20 releases of 2014: Intro

Given that here we are in a fresh new year, it feels appropriately perverse to spend the majority of January wallowing in the backwash of 2014, in a painstakingly detailed series of posts counting down this site’s (by which I mean my) top twenty albums of the year. As with last year’s, I could have made this list much longer, and there’s a lot of superb stuff left out, but since the most important part of compiling a list like this is the filtering and pruning that goes on before the list is completed I resisted that temptation. Before getting stuck in with the actual list itself, however, there are a few things that I want to get out of the way, and a few that I just think are interesting and worth discussing a bit.

Firstly, the usual caveats about what isn’t on the list. I took a pretty liberal interpretation of what constitutes an “album” (which is why I phrase it as “releases” in the title) that includes any EPs with three or more songs, or in theory less if the music is sufficiently expansive and developed (progressive or psychedelic bands will sometimes release a single extraordinarily long track and call it an album, and I generously grant them my permission to do this).

I don’t include my own Call And Response label’s releases in my list, although for reasons I’ll come to later (and will probably develop in more writing I do over the year) there are actually some broader problems related to this due to the changing nature and environment of music journalism. This means Jebiotto’s Love Song Duet and Futtachi’s Tane to Zenra are instantly disqualified even though they are both brilliant, and Lo-shi’s Baku is also disqualified since it is due for a limited vinyl release through Call And Response Records very soon. I also didn’t include the magnificent and utterly ridiculous Black Sabbath covers album that Call And Response gave away for free on Valentine’s Day. Great stuff, but I wouldn’t know how to rate them relative to the other great stuff that came out this year, and including them would get in the way of the authoritativeness and impartiality for which I know I am famed.

One of the other things that happened this year was that Call And Response started distributing CDs by bands unconnected to the label in a limited fashion. Those CDs are eligible for inclusion in the list. I realise it’s a bit of a fine line, but if I love something enough to recommend it through my store, it stands to reason that I love it enough to recommend it on these pages and vice versa. My role still remains an essentially passive one in this instance, so I trust readers of this site not to whine about conflict of interest. As the roles of blogs and labels (not to mention organisers and suchlike) as curators of particular streams of musical taste increasingly converge, this line is an increasingly difficult one to maintain, and I’m feeling my way through it based primarily on what feels comfortable for me. It’s an unscientific process, but I’ll get there in the end.

Of course there were a lot of terrific releases that didn’t make the list because I either didn’t hear them or the wind of my whim at the time of compiling the final twenty was blowing in another direction, so Teen Runnings, Mukokyu Kakokyu Shinkokyu, Compact Club, Chiina and many others can still hold their heads high despite the shame of not making the golden twenty this time.Chiina: Syllabus

I’m going to draw this out to tedious length with (hopefully) daily posts tackling each of the twenty releases I’ve selected one by one, with the first post in the countdown tomorrow, so keep your eyes on this space and wonders await.

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Teen Runnings: Now

Now

CD, Sauna Cool, 2014

Teen Runnings’ debut album Let’s Get Together Again was such a pure, finely honed rush of scuzzy, lo-fi early Beach Boys-style summer melodies and 80s Jesus And Mary Chain noise pop, so comfortable in its niche that it’s hard to see where the band could take it from there. Of course that particular musical seam is rich enough that they could have stayed there, fleshing out their influences and refining their songwriting and arrangements without really moving on, and for a large portion of Now that’s what they do.

Songs like Don’t Care About Me pick up exactly where the band’s debut left off, while I Wonder What Your Mom’s Thinking develops the 80s jangle-pop aspects of their sound. I’ve always had a sneaking suspicion that somewhere in Shota Kaneko’s mind there lurks a massive Slade fan struggling to escape and start pounding out glam rock anthems, and High School Love seems to borrow the intro to Cum On Feel the Noize, although it swiftly departs in another direction entirely and ends up being one of the songs that best exemplifies the growing sophistication of Teen Runnings’ songwriting and arrangements.

Where Now diverts most strongly from these fuzzy, summery, punkish guitar pop is in the growing incursions of other genres as the album progresses. Leather Jacket has a squelchy funk bassline, while the bass becomes even more slippery on Sightseeing, with the addition of a clattering drum machine and a growing influence of synths on the song’s overall texture. Meanwhile closing song Don’t Take Me Down is full-on 80s synth-pop, stealing wholesale the chord progression from Rick Astley’s Never Gonna Give You Up but a plenty fun, catchy pop tune in its own right.

And in the end, despite the 60s garage roots, it’s the primarily 80s that Teen Runnings seem to hark back to, albeit an 80s that was itself deeply in love with the 60s. The cover art by Hiroshi Nagai recalls the artist’s earlier work on Eiichi Ohtaki’s classic 1981 album A Long Vacation, which itself owes a lot to David Hockney’s 1967 work A Bigger Splash (albeit without the fun of the actual splash) just as Ohtaki’s music drew heavily on the Beach Boys and Phil Spector. Where Nagai and Ohtaki took the 60s and refined its aesthetics – removing the splash, as it were – Teen Runnings go a long way towards putting some of that kinetic power back in, and on Now, they do a good job of maintaining that balance.

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Strange Boutique (July 2013)

Eiichi Ohtaki: Kimi Wa Ten-Nen-Shoku

A bit late posting this due to one thing and another, but here’s my most recent column for The Japan Times. The theme was Japanese summer albums, and it was primarily an excuse to rave about Eiichi Ohtaki’s 1981 masterpiece A Long Vacation, which remains probably my favourite Japanese mainstream pop album. Ohtaki was a member of Happy End in the 60s and 70s, and his old bandmates helped out in various fashions on this album, but there’s a purity of craftsmanship and vision on this record that even his old band’s most celebrated work doesn’t quite have. In a way, comparing A Long Vacation to something like Kazemachi Roman is a bit like comparing stuff by The Beatles to Brian Wilson’s work with The Beach Boys, in that the former is at heart a band’s album while the latter is fundamentally a producer’s album. Either way, there are obvious similarities and I’m not really interested in ranking stuff this good.Eiichi Ohtaki: Koi Suru Karen

By all means investigate the other stuff I mention in the article, but really A Long Vacation is all I want to talk about here. I love the way Koi Suru Karen just leaps into the chorus with so much power and gusto but does so by dropping in a bunch of new layers of sound, not by rocking out in the typical band style. I love the way the squelchy synth bass in Pap-Pi-Doo-Bi-Doo-Ba Monogatari sounds completely at odds with the light, fluffy, 60s-style melody and yet totally at one with the piece, and I love how FUNx4 just even exists, as one of the most ludicrously, unashamedly pop! pop! pop! tunes ever written. I even love the fake clapping at the end.Eiichi Ohtaki: FUNx4

In the end, it’s just one of the most marvellous summer albums ever and one of my favourite pop albums ever, regardless of where it was made. It was one of the first Japanese pop albums I ever heard, when as a first year university student, my Japanese dorm-mate lent me his copy, so perhaps I’m sentimentally biased — I still harbour warm feelings for Mr. Children’s 1997 megahit album Bolero and Globe’s Faces Places, although neither commands such power over my affections. Fundamentally though, it’s a magnificent collection of songs by a songwriter and producer at the peak of his powers, and that just rules so I make no apologies for this cascade of thoroughly un-journalistic, fanboyish pop-love.Eiichi Ohtaki: Saraba Siberia Tetsudou

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Strange Boutique (February 2013)

My latest column is up on The Japan Times’ web site now. It deals with the influence of shoegaze in general, and My Bloody Valentine in particular, on the Japanese indie music scene. Given that MBV have their first new album out in forever and have recently been on tour here, it’s perhaps understandable that people have been going mental for them lately. My Facebook feed for a week was full almost entirely of different photos of the same “Tonite: My Bloody Valentine” display board outside Studio Coast that all my friends were posting with tedious regularity, and there were several club events, a shoegaze festival and a tribute album all out at the same time.Supercar: Karma

There were a few little remarks I dropped in there knowing that people would get annoyed by them. It’s my little gift to idol fans that after aggravating them so much the other week, I thought I’d do the same to indie fans. Some people have already told me off for calling Chapterhouse, Ride, Lush and Slowdive “copycats”, but I hope most people will accept that as legitimate editorial hyperbole (I’m a huge fan of Lush and I’m sure Chapterhouse will one day merit an article all of their own where someone can do them proper justice, but that article isn’t this one and that writer won’t be me). I wondered if anyone would upbraid me for mentioning Stereolab and Flying Saucer Attack as well, since they’re not strictly shoegaze (if you cleave to a definition of shoegaze that means basically “exactly copying MBV”). Stereolab were definitely part of The Scene That Celebrates Itself though, and the guitar on the 18-minute album version of Jenny Ondioline is as shoegaze as anything ever made, while FSA’s whole first album is non-more-shoegaze. But yes, I stand by my assertion that FSA were better than MBV. If you disagree with me, your ears are wrong.

I mentioned Narasaki’s work with Momoiro Clover Z too, and to be honest there’s nothing really shoegaze about any of that. All it really means is that he’s a guy with a shoegaze background working with idols. In Lost Child, he uses synths and vocals in a vaguely shoegazing way, but where he employs guitars, it’s always metal. You need to listen to Coaltar of the Deepers to see where the two cross over really.

Shoegaze in Japan is interesting though. In the indie scene, it tends to be more of the lo-fi, 80s proto-shoegaze variety, and I think The Jesus and Mary Chain and well as MBV’s early, jangly stuff are probably bigger influences. You can hear that really strongly in stuff like Slow-Marico and Teen RunningsThere are also bands who probably take their influence more from the more vaguely defined neo-shoegaze coming out of the USA and to a lesser extent the UK in the past few years, which I feel is more where Jesse Ruins are.

In the alt-rock scene, which is where the really hardcore effects pedal geeks reside, the likes of Dinosaur Jr. are probably just as influential, and then there’s also the secondary influence of all the Japanese bands around the late 90s/early 2000s who were the first to really articulate the influence of shoegaze in the first place. Supercar were by far the most significant. Nagoya’s Pop-Office acknowledge the influence of Supercar as an important one for them. When I was in Fukuoka at the end of January, my boys Hyacca covered the track Lucky off the album Three Out Change and everyone over the age of thirty went mental. Hyacca themselves have some pretty heavily shoegazey tracks (guitarist Goshima is largely responsible) like Olympic, Skyline, Angel Fish, and Sashitai, although usually mixed in with something else, and that tends to be the way with most alternative bands. They love MBV pretty much uniformly, but few of them seem that tied down or restricted by the influence.Hyacca: Sashitai

The other thing that they tend not to have so much of is the sheer noise. Noise music in Japan tends to come from electronic, no wave or psychedelic traditions. The idea of an indie noise band is pretty unique here, so any band with MBV’s tunes would probably not really bring the noise, and any band with the noise would probably be a bit more prog rock and soundscapey with the songs. Cruyff in the Bedroom, the guitarist of whom I spoke to briefly for the article, are one of the best (that I’ve heard, at least) of the current crop of bands who can legitimately be called full-on shoegaze, although there are a lot of pretty good ones. My favourite are probably the Stereolab-esque, synth-laden Hour Musik, but some other key names are Lemon’s Chair, who organised the Yellow Loveless tribute album, Luminous Orange, who were perhaps the first Japanese shoegazers back in the 90s, Plastic Girl in Closet are another important one, and the list goes on.

 

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Interview: Teen Runnings

After a long time away from interviewing, I caught up with Shota Kaneko from scuzzy indie trio Teen Runnings over the summer and came up with this piece that I quite enjoyed writing. Not much to add here other than to emphasise that they really are a very nice band and well worth checking, especially if you get a chance to see them live. Here’s a newish video that Videotapemusic did for the song Make it Better to coincide with the expanded CD re-release of the album Let’s Get Together Again.

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Half Sports: Slice of Our City

CD, Drriill, 2012

What makes Slice of Our City, the debut album by Half Sports, one of the most soul-cheering albums of this past summer is the sheer exuberence with which the band attack their ragged, lo-fi indie melodies. I’ve increasingly found myself coming to the conclusion that Primal Scream’s Sonic Flower Groove is the worst thing to have ever happened to indie, setting the template for all subsequent peddlers of stultifyingly reverent, emotionally blank, dreary, self-absorbed Byrds pastiches. Half Sports throw that shit out of the window, plunging into every song all booming drums, joyous vocals and energetic major chords, while never losing sight of the essential charm of  melodic 1980s guitar pop. In fact, in many ways Half Sports are closer to the spirit of that era than many of their contemporaries, with Slice of Our City, like Japanese indie contemporaries Teen Runnings, remembering and retaining a connection to indiepop’s roots in punk and powerpop, which it does largely through propulsive rhythms that recall elements of The Soft Boys in places. The band cite The Stone Roses as a key influence, and there are echoes of John Squire’s chiming Rickenbacker guitar lines here, but where Brown, Squire & co. were all about precision and poise in their recordings, Half Sports are more about rock’n’roll energy. In this sense, they have more in common with The Mighty Lemon Drops, falling somewhere between the rough-edged early material like Like an Angel and the straight “big music” rock thrills of 1989’s Laughter. One of the Japanese indie albums of the year.

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Boyish: The Hidden Secrets EP

It’s a constant source of wonder to me the way so many Japanese indiepop bands seem to spend hours ensuring the reverb on their guitars is just so in order to create the scientifically optimum level of Cure/Smiths/Close Lobsters style jangle and then when it comes to recording and mixing the vocals, they suddenly discover that of all the bands they could be mimicking, Sonic Flower Groove-era Primal Scream (the second-worst period of this utterly horrible band, and largely because of the shuddering craptitude of the worst vocalist in British indie history, Bobby Gillespie) is the pinnacle of their aspiration.

I dig Boyish and there is a lot to love about them on this new EP. On title track The Hidden Secrets, they fashion a neat energy rush out of the little pause between each loop of the main guitar riff and on Quarrel, the xylophone that dances over the top of the guitars seems to be saying, “Want some jangle on top of your jangle? You got it!” while the repetitive chorus burns itself into your ears and the abrupt halt that closes the song is an enjoyably snotty way to end. Closing number, Crazy For You is the weakest of the collection, and it’s no coincidence that it’s the once that sees Boyish aping Primal Scream the most, with the vocals smeared blandly across the otherwise solid track, nailed down to no clear melody and expressing no particular character or personality.

I realise that this, more than many other things, is a matter of taste (I really do dislike Primal Scream a lot, and Bobby Gillespie in particular I can’t stand), and there is a certain sort of person who finds this sort of emotionally drained vocal style the peak of washed-out beauty. I also don’t want this to seem like I’m gunning after Boyish in particular, since they’re a band I very much like. It’s a general point about the mixing of vocals in Japanese indie records that I’ve touched on before when discussing Nagoya’s The Moments and which some people have mentioned as a criticism of Friends/Teen Runnings (I don’t strictly agree as far as Teen Runnings are concerned, since their music has a more abrasive, punk edge, but it was enough that they themselves decided to remix their album and clean up the vocals) but it really does seem to me that these bands are all missing a trick by neglecting the musical opportunities offered by such an important instrument as the vocals.

(More on this over at Make Believe Melodies)

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