Caress the World
364 · 17 January 02
Ayumi Hamasaki: I am...
I was not, until recently, an Asiaphile. Or perhaps I was all along, but I only just discovered it. Either way, I now realize that something significant happened to me one night last summer, when I flipped to a Canadian music-video channel and happened across two Japanese girls meandering placidly through a psychoactive mock-Mardi Gras march. I've been enchanted by last halves of videos more than once before (American Music Club, Sarah McLachlan, Tori Amos and Alanis Morissette all initially reached me this way, for example), so other than scribbling the credits info on the back of a Cambridge Soundworks brochure, I didn't think that much of the encounter. I bought the album, Puffy AmiYumi's Spike, and liked it. Tracking down the rest of Puffy's albums took a little longer than usual, as my main import sources are all Euro-centric, but eventually I found them. And since there are only a few, it was a pretty short story: one random lead, one entertaining band, no personal cultural upheaval.
But a couple months later, walking past the used bins at Newbury Comics, I noticed a solo album by one of the girls from Puffy out of the corner of my eye, and reflexively reached back to grab it. I was halfway to the register with it before it dawned on me that it wasn't Puffy-related. It was an album called LOVEppears, by Ayumi Hamasaki, and for a few moments I felt like a horrible "they all look alike to me" cultural imbecile for having confused "Ayumi" with "AmiYumi" and mistaken one sleek young Japanese woman for two others, but then I remembered how much trouble my mother has keeping Eddie Rabbit and Eddie Money straight, and calmed down a little. I put the album back, since it didn't have any connection to anything I knew, but the next week it was still sitting there, and I'd started to wonder whether it sounded like Puffy as much as it looked like Puffy, so I bought it after all.
And that is where the real trouble started. I had mixed reactions to the individual songs on LOVEppears, like I'd had mixed reactions to the songs on Spike and the other Puffy records for that matter, but I adored the chirpily frenetic spirit, and put together the two albums and three women made me think (and why this hadn't occurred to me before I couldn't tell you) that they might constitute examples of a type, in which case there might be a whole genre lurking behind them.
This turns out, probably unsurprisingly, to be true. The genre is called J-Pop. Actually, there are two genres called J-Pop. The one that has achieved some subcultural currency in the US is mainly composed of quirky neo-retro pop with heavy spy-music overtones, exemplified by Pizzicato Five, and aesthetically aligned with some unruly hybrid of Anime and Hello Kitty. This is the J-Pop I knew about already (although the name never seemed right to me, because the music all sounds so French). It is also the J-Pop I don't like. The other J-Pop, to which Puffy belongs (and of which Spike is the only example you're likely to find in an American record store), means "J-Pop" less as a label than simply as an abbreviation of "Japanese Pop". Puffy and Ayumi Hamasaki are, on some very basic moral and aesthetic level, the Japanese equivalent of Britney Spears. Maybe worse, as the Japanese idol culture is quite a bit more systematized than American media stardom. The music is instantly recognizable and frothy, big-budget top-40 teen-dance-pop, it's just that most of the lyrics are in Japanese, and nobody has, historically, attempted to market it to us ungainly, xenophobic Americans. One might very reasonably ask, were one averse to frothy, big-budget top-40 teen-dance-pop in its American form, why Japanese Britneys wouldn't be precisely as substance-less and expendable. I do not, despite some time spent contemplating it, have what I feel is a satisfactory answer to this question. In part it may merely be cultural novelty; one person's tedious mainstream time-filler is nearly always somebody else's exotica. In another part, my sudden violent conversion to manic Japanese pop devotee may be a synergistic side-effect of my converging recent interests in Asian cinema (fueled by having been so enthralled by Yi Yi) and Asian food (fueled by realizing I'd been driving right by several excellent non-special-occasion sushi restaurants). I'm oversimplifying, obviously, not to mention (at least in the film case) blithely amalgamating Japan, Korea, China, Taiwan and Vietnam into a largely undifferentiated Asia in my mind, but obsessions naturally begin in ignorance.
This particular obsession, in fact, is making its way out of abject ignorance at an almost unbearably slow pace. Knowing both Puffy and Ayumi Hamasaki gave me enough information to start poking around on the web, but unlike with Scandinavian metal or Belgian electronica, where I can generally find and read discographies without technically knowing the language in which the web site is written, Japanese sites usually stop me cold. Excruciatingly, I know the information I'm after is one click away, but the links are gibberish, the pages they lead to are gibberish, and I'm left glowering at my screen wondering how long it will be before Babelfish can handle whatever those scratchy little pictograms are. I don't even know how to alphabetize these records once I finally find them; I learned as a kid that "Oriental" names have the family name first, but some of these people have flipped theirs as a Westernism, and I don't know how to tell the difference. Ayumi Hamasaki is nicknamed Ayu, which seems to indicate that Ayumi is her first name, and I've seen Nanase Aikawa referred to familiarly as Nanase, but then Hitomi Yaida is called Yaiko, which suggests the reverse. At least Puffy's credits put the family names in all capitals, to eliminate the ambiguity. Although capitalization is another whole topic in itself; English J-Pop song titles are rigorously written with particular capitalizations (LOVEppears is always exactly like that, for example, while I am... is clearly I am... and not I Am...), and I haven't the slightest idea what the coding signifies.
And of course, I'm not actually worrying about collating order or type-case while I'm listening to the records, but the bulk of the singing is in Japanese, and as I've admitted before, I've usually found it very hard to develop emotional attachments to music whose lyrics I don't understand. But apparently if the music is kinetic enough, it doesn't matter nearly as much as I'd assumed, and Ayumi Hamasaki and producer Max Matsuura's songs, at their most upbeat, take kinesis to very near the point of absurdity. Many of the skittering sprint-techno arrangements on I am..., their fourth album, would sound like they're being played at twice the proper speed even without the exaggeration provided by Ayu's helium-infused vocals. In my favorite moments, with this album turned way up, the sensation is something like having the crap beaten swiftly out of you by a cheerfully belligerent Tinker Bell, perhaps after being shrunk down to her size and trapped with her inside Cher's pitch-corrector. "Connected" is synthetic and whoosy, happily swiping spare parts from diva techno, drum-and-bass, early disco and vintage Tangerine Dream. "UNITE!" veers over into old EMF territory, heaping on the kind of anti-bubblegum rock flourishes that Britney and Christina's Mouseketeer oaths oblige them to studiously avoid. The machine-gun vocal delivery in "evolution" makes that old Letters to Cleo song sound like Senate oratory. "Naturally" is the kind of sparkly cut-up I imagine Yaz would have made if they'd had 2002 technology twenty years earlier. The quiet parts of "NEVER EVER" sound like a music-box constructed out of a second-hand Babbage's Analytical Engine, and the loud parts sound like some costumed arch-villain drop-kicked Aerosmith into it. The verses of "still alone" sound unnervingly like a K's Choice cover, right down to Ayu's voice cracking in an uncharacteristically unpolished production, but the choruses are colossal and blaring. "Daybreak" bounces from crashing arena-metal waltz to airy, Titanic-grade atmosphere and back. "M" (italics Ayu's) starts out like a deadpan ballad, but mutates into a strange robotic retro-funk. "Dearest" finally does deliver the Celine Dion-style epic ballad, and "no more words" sounds like Enya trying a little jazz swoop, but "Endless sorrow", the nominal finale, is a minor masterpiece of style-appropriation, combining pinging U2-ish guitars, crunching drums, breathy synthesizers, grand acoustic-guitar strums and Ayu in her most grown-up (i.e. least squeaky) mode, and I doubt we'll ever hear anything this sophisticated from Britney or Christina unless one of their parents knows somebody who knows Peter Gabriel. And there's also a careening bonus track, which sounds like an adaptation of something, but I can't place it, and the credits are written in those unhelpful scratchy symbols again so I have no good way to find out.
Nanase Aikawa: Purana
My J-Pop repertoire expanded from two to three in an especially random manner: some Ayumi Hamasaki web searching led me to a compilation put out by a Japanese cosmetic company, whose web page had clips of two songs. One was Ayu's "appears"; the other was Nanase Aikawa's "SEVEN SEAS". The second clip was only a few seconds long, part of a verse and one chorus, but that was enough to sear the thing into whatever part of my brain is responsible for supplying the melodies I hum to myself in moments when my environment neglects to provide one. And although "SEVEN SEAS" has an airy (and partly English) chorus that could stand with any delirious moments out of pop history, it's actually not much at all like Puffy's "Love So Pure", with which I paired it on my 2001 song list. "Love So Pure" is classic understated upbeat guitar pop, American by both authorship and temperament, succinct and only sparingly embellished. "SEVEN SEAS" is a sprawling, clattering, multi-faceted, all-devices-blinking five-plus-minute rock song. Guitars squall by in various formations, some sounding like people playing them, some like samples; synths blip and hiss; a bass pulses gracefully, as if not quite noticing the relentless drum-machine battery. Cacophonous vocal samples on the verses and bridges alternate with soaring backing harmonies on the choruses. There are enough ideas and motifs for at least three songs. It's the chorus, though, that elevates it from technical tour de force to co-song-of-the-year for me. Just as the guitar histrionics reach the brink of implosion, the whole song banks into a perfect, arching turn and ends up in the simple, heady, timeless refrain "Flying over seven seas, looking for your love". The in-between lines in the chorus are in Japanese again, so I don't know what use Nanase is making of this statement of purpose, but as with Puffy's "Love So Pure" and "Violet", I'm even more fascinated by it for this reason, as if of course the substance of a declaration of love is couched in a private language. Not knowing what she's saying, I'm free to imagine that's she's saying a million things at once, which a sentence in a language you understand tragically can't do. I wonder, as I did watching Maborosi and kind of wishing I could turn the subtitles off, whether learning some Japanese isn't in a way counter-productive and anti-magical, and mundane comprehension will end up supplanting some of the awe currently engendered by ignorance. But that's no argument; true magic isn't a trick you dispel by watching carefully, it's something whose effect you can't explain even after you know how it works.
And although "SEVEN SEAS" is still my favorite individual song here after I've heard the others, the album as a whole more or less recapitulates the song on a larger scale. At the leering rock-star end of the spectrum, "Party*2001" is a shameless novelty song with rap interludes bopping in and out of erratic English. "Trick" bashes through a groove distantly extrapolated from old Southern Rock by roundabout way of punk slash and industrial churn. "No Future" is dense and anxious, somewhere between Curve and Jesus Jones. "Adieu" retreats to twitchy drums and vocal elegance, like a pre-remixed boy-group soundtrack lullaby. "trust me" snaps and pounds like T-Rex via Power Station. Tracks seven and eight have Japanese titles I can't do anything with, the former a vaguely Roxette-like power ballad, the latter furious speed-punk-pop. "midnight blue" continues the headlong rush, guitars squealing and Nanase chanting her lines, but "[THE END]" slows down and fuzzes out, noisily off-putting exit music for when people maybe aren't leaving quite quickly enough. The last two songs are a coda of sorts, the Japanese-titled eleventh track a pretty voice-and-acoustic-guitar piece for its first minute or so before evolving smoothly into something guardedly expansive, "~ dandelion ~" back into full-speed histrionic overdrive. The centerpiece of "~ dandelion ~" is a guitar hook, not a vocal line, and I think my favorite parts are actually the muted beginnings of the verses, not the choruses for once, but I'd have fallen for the album based on a minute of this song, too.
Every Little Thing: 4 Force
After Puffy, Ayu and Nanase, though, my progress began to pick up noticeably, and in the last month or two I have ascended, in my rough estimation, from complete ignorance to merely serious ignorance. I have heard enough J-Pop albums to start disliking some of them, plus several hours of theme music from Japanese TV shows and video games, and even (although you'll have to take my word for this for the moment) a few J-Pop bands with male vocalists. And I now feel ready to pick a first favorite from the genre. They are called Every Little Thing, and although branding them a younger Japanese Roxette makes it seem like I've found the thing in a new genre that most resembles something I already loved in a different one, I still think it's the best description. They were a trio for their first three delightful albums, with keyboardist Mitsuru Igarashi responsible for production and most of the songwriting, but thrown back on their own resources as a duo for this fourth album, guitarist Ichiro Ito and singer Kaori Mochida make what I think is by far their best record yet. If you don't like Roxette, it wouldn't surprise me much if you didn't like this much, either. The two bands share a sense of pop grandeur, a knack for meshing burbling synthesizers and affectionately blustery guitars, an unshakeable faith in sparkle and melody, and an uncanny ability to leave me, at the ends of songs, gasping for breath and incredulous that they managed to find so many different notes that go together so effortlessly. "Graceful World" (the title phrase, one of only two English interjections in an otherwise Japanese song, comes out sounding more like "Caress the World" in Kaori Mochida's not-too-confident-sounding accent) is stern and stirring, something like Roxette's "Sleeping in My Car" with a more rubbery bass line. "JIRENMA" is brighter and faster, spiked with synth buzzes and stabs borrowed from deep in the Eighties. Track three (scratchy-symbol title...) is an "It Must Have Been Love"-level power-ballad, rendered only marginally smaller, if at all, by the slightly more impish vocal timbre. "Good for nothing" is sputtering and bubbly, underpinned by a crisp drum-machine groove and a lumbering synth bass. Track five is sedate and pastel, like "Milk and Toast and Honey" with a little extra stage-musical lilt. "sweetaholic girl" is an epic arpeggiator collage, a song like I imagine Garbage might make if they stopped worrying about being cool, although towards the end Ichiro Ito betrays a little guitar-god ambition that Per Gessle and Butch Vig would probably both have suppressed. "Home Sweet Home" is a glittering synth-pop gem I only barely talked myself out of including with "Love So Pure" and "SEVEN SEAS" in an own-rule-defying three-way tie for the year's best song. "fragile" is almost sappy enough for Hollywood, but "No limit" is an object lesson in restraint, the core of the arrangement a springy two-note synth-bass oscillation and a simple drum-machine loop, with fake piano and light synth pads sheened glisteningly over the top. Guitar and synth soloing get hold of parts of the otherwise understated "force of heart", and "One" strays back into soundtrack territory, and too soon it's over, which is probably all that nudged the album just out of that top ten for me. One more song, one more upturn, one more glorious arpeggio to go out on, instead of a diffident New Age guitar figure and a slow fade out, and I'd have followed this record anywhere. As it is, instead, I sit here watching Every Little Thing fondly, content to wonder what they will become. Per and Marie are still working, of course, so we don't need to replace Roxette just yet. There's time.
And in this interlude, however long it lasts, between before I'd heard of any of this music and after it isn't surprising any more, or between before I needed anything from it and after it becomes part of how I survive, I am basking in a precious thrill. Maybe the slow pace of discovery is part of the gift. For a little while more, in at least this one tiny corner of my life, I'm not an obsessive completist in his mid-thirties with millions of words of preconceptions and provisional conclusions. I get these little packages in the mail from far away, just three or four CDs at a time instead of my usual piles, and I open them as if part of what I paid for was the air inside. I put these records on for the first time the way I used to walk into movies when I was ten, thinking "I can't believe I'm about to experience this!". I believe, for an hour or two at a time, that my life is about to change in ways I can't even enumerate. Is this sensation really earned? Is anything I think of as a problem actually going to get solved faster, or at all, if I learn to order eel and avocado maki in Japanese or figure out the difference between Hiragana and Katakana? Well, why not? How do we calibrate self-alteration other than by finding alluring strangenesses against which to juxtapose ourselves? Maybe I've come here by familiar paths, but for a fleeting instant I'm beautifully lost, and every direction leads towards morning.