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Nani ka hoka no mono
Glay: Unity Roots & Family, Away
I'm not saying you need to follow Japanese pop music. You don't need very much, really. I'm prepared to believe that a person could, however inadvisably, survive without music entirely, and maybe even survive without art at all, as long as they get a steady supply of ideas in some other form. And if you can live without music, then obviously you can live without any particular kind of music. It doesn't actually quite follow, strictly speaking, that there isn't some individual type of music that, if you can't live without music in general, you can't live without in specific, but for the purposes of argument I am going to stipulate that if there exists such a thing, this isn't it. Up until some time last year, I was conducting an eminently active musical life without any appreciable Japanese input, and given all the other regions of the planet whose music I'm still ignorant of today, I think it's reasonable to assume that I could have sustained one more ignorance indefinitely.
So, on one level, I state my cases for these Japanese records in the same spirit that I argue for anything, well (if not painfully) aware that to you any given entire topic may seem inherently irrelevant. It may be nearly axiomatic, for that matter: I'm not sure I ever truly love something unless I think I understand that my devotion is in some way potentially inexplicable and irreproducible, and probably the stranger the better. This is one of those things I'd think was absolutely universal, if I didn't have other people against which to measure my instinctive internal notion of universality. I'm never sure whether it's supposed to be exhilarating or terrifying that there are so many people who appear to operate under entirely different laws of emotional physics from the ones I perceive, people who don't seem to be at all embarrassed to say that their favorite bands are the Beatles and REM, their favorite movies are The Godfather and Schindler's List, their celebrity crushes are on fashion models and if given unlimited resources they would spend the rest of their days enjoying the "finer" things. It's not that the Beatles weren't good enough to be somebody's favorite band, or even a lot of people's favorite band. Exactly the opposite, maybe: They are already so revered by what I think of as anonymous hordes that I'm shocked to occasionally meet a discrete individual who thinks the hordes haven't done enough yet. The corpus of finer things represents the cultural known, and no matter how comprehensive its catalog becomes, I can't imagine being satisfied with it, can't imagine being one of the people who aren't compulsively and perpetually driven to find something else. Apparently I love the less-fine things, which sounds crazy and perfectly correct.
These are deductions I've come to by observing myself and my environment, though. Inside my head, it all seems far simpler; I don't calculate what I ought to love, I just love what I can't resist. And it's not that I don't try. I bought Unity Roots & Family, Away, the new album by Glay, eagerly anticipating another incremental step beyond the exuberant proficiency of last year's ONE LOVE, and spent my first two or three sessions with the new record more or less waiting for the real parts to begin. I wanted epic guitar roar, and instead got shimmery atmosphere, assorted guest vocals and an elusive calm. If I wanted shimmery atmosphere, assorted guest vocals and an elusive calm, I'd sedate Stephin Merritt, dip him in bioluminescent paint and throw him in a lake.
I can't even tell you why I kept playing this record. Either I wanted to like it more than my low level of previous commitment to Glay can really justify, or else I knew I wasn't listening right. A few weeks later, having circled around to the opposite side of this beautiful album, I can barely reconstruct how it isn't exactly what I was expecting. ONE LOVE had songs as slow as any of these, and vice versa as fast. I'm not even sure the balance would be that different, quantitatively, if you ran the two records through the disassembler. But a parts inventory doesn't always tell you very much about how they can be put together. Unity takes muted urgencies, guarded melancholy and carefully rationed catharses and arranges them, it now seems to me, into a subtle and ambitious pop record that is, for much of its length, not so temperamentally unlike Marillion's Holidays in Eden or Crowded House's first, and draws from the same long tradition that we now consider the Beatles to have begun. And you may think you can live without this, but you should know that it works both ways: People could live on this music, without any of yours, and you'll have to decide for yourself whether that idea constitutes an intolerable provocation.
Unity Roots & Family, Away opens (and the pace and order of things is critical, throughout) with an airily quasi-classical entrance theme, on the order of Marillion's for The Thieving Magpie, sweeping adroitly from glassy synth pads through fluttery winds, pulsing strings, swelling horns and rustling orchestral percussion to a few moments of rousing symphonic excess, but before anything can spin permanently out of control, the robots click back into the infrastructure, and the song proper begins. It's called "WE ALL FEEL HIS STRENGTH OF TENDER", and yes it's really in all capitals, and if you want to snipe at Glay for their English or their typography, go right ahead, but only if you can do better in their language. The pinging guitars in the first couple verses are an obvious The Joshua Tree mannerism, but I think by now the Edge's echo-syncopation trick has passed into the public domain. Glay build it into a slow crescendo lifted by an appropriately reverent gospel choir, and sung as affirmation the fractured title phrase works just fine.
"Mata koko de aimashou" ("Let's love here again", or something on that order), next, backs up and starts over in uncomplicated rock form, a little sunny piano-and-cello figure introducing a cheerfully braying rock arrangement. "girlish MOON" oscillates between lullaby and march, its mind not quite made up, but "Way of Difference", a post-ONE LOVE single that came out way back in February, is unsurprisingly the album's clearest throwback, confident and alternately sparkly and barbed, with sonar-ping synths reaching almost the Yaz level towards the beginning, and a bracing guitar-squall bridge lurking in the middle. "Koukai" ("Navigation"), its bookend, diligently conflates New Order and Simple Minds to come up with a galloping, falsetto-keyed pop song deftly tinged with wistfulness, and you don't have to know any Japanese to appreciate the looping, consonantless passage right after the first "You got to keep on walking". "Yuruginai monotachi" ("The Fearless", maybe, but here I'm guessing at an idiom involving a plurality of people collectively exhibiting a lack of shaking) starts off as if it's going to be a little piano song, but the rest of the band shows up to turn it into a fairly vintage power-ballad after a minute or so.
And that's the last point at which I'm now anything other than ecstatic while listening to this. "Natsu no kanata e" ("To the other side of summer"?) combines crinkly mandolin, humming organs and a massed choir for a kind of trans-cultural folk-hymn poised between Christmas carol solemnity and Harold and Maude mischievousness. The wisely unforced "neverland" drapes sketchy piano and acoustic guitar over some sort of pattering hand-drum frame, reminding me more than a little of Tugboat. "Karera no HOLY X'MAS" sticks to similarly minimal drums, but over them weaves together beepy reed tones, arching harmonies and some textural vocal processing. "Father & Son" is buoyant and mesmerizing, the production devising a unique springy timbre for every individual instrument, including whooshy synth-drums and one of those guitar sounds you can't get from nature, like a classical guitar made out of harpsichord parts. "Sotsugyou made, ato sukoshi" ("To graduation, a little later"?) is aptly valedictory, and if you'd like to enjoy a little jolt of language recognition, the Japanese word for "OK", as a feeling, is pronounced "die-joe-boo", so keep an ear open for somebody asking "How are you doing?" in English. "Friend of mine", the false finale, is a loping, mid-tempo pop song for a while, and then the gospel choir comes back and turns it into a grand all-hands farewell. And I doubt you'll have heard very many things this year as surreal as the real final track, after a few seconds' pause, for which Headcrack and dj honda repurpose the ONE LOVE song "ALL STANDARD IS YOU" as a kind of half-twitchy, half-elegiac podium for Headcrack to stand on while rapping about ghettos. Do Glay come from a ghetto? I suppose they might, I wouldn't know, but if so I don't think they've been there in a while. Headcrack seems to mean "ghetto" as a synonym for "neighborhood", a strange bit of defeatism that is redoubled in his second stanza, where he drops out of cadence to complain, heart-wrenchingly, "I was always told 'If you believe, you will achieve'; / I've been believin', I ain't achieved nothing. / I'm hurting inside me, I'm tired, you know? / So much I can take". How this directly relates to anything else on the album, I have no idea at all, but as a conclusion I think it's just about perfect all the same, one last test of the music's faith and power that it passes without even flinching. Yes, you're tired. We're all tired. Glay know. Here, this might help.
the pillows: Fool on the planet
As is undoubtably the case with lots of people, I've found out about some Japanese music from watching Japanese animation. I suspect, though, that I'm one of relatively few people who got into anime via music, rather than the other way around. To follow Japanese music from here, you need a CD Japan account and a budget. To follow anime, you just need a DVD player. I'm not sure I'd call myself an anime fan yet, but I've been watching a fair amount of it in the dual interests of language osmosis and avoiding being bored out of my mind during my morning rowing-machine sessions. Having no interest in morphing robots and pointy-chinned sword-fighters cuts out a certain amount of the field right away, but there are still plenty of options. I find that in general, the more mundane the activities depicted, the more interesting I find them (those rare moments in Love Hina when there isn't anything idiotic going on, or anything in Princess Nine that doesn't involve baseball, or the episodes of Cowboy Bebop where they run out of gas in the middle of nowhere), but there are a few notable exceptions. Urusei Yatsura is hilarious, sometimes in an arrestingly Simpsons-anticipating way. Excel Saga is berserk enough to sometimes make me miss oar-strokes. Perhaps the strangest one I've so far come across, though, is FLCL, a six-episode straight-to-video series of which only the first two episodes are available domestically yet. My impression so far is that this series has been executed with no stylistic discipline at all, nor a clear idea ahead of time about what the story is or why the characters are in it. At times it does have morphing robots, along with abundant inanity to no clear end, and occasionally some thoroughly dreadful art. And then, though, there are moments where it hangs in a moment of hauntingly beautiful suspension. Someone walks down a hall and turns into a room out of view. A bullied high-school girl sits under a bridge playing a hand-held video-game in which she's an arsonist. Her absent boyfriend's younger brother walks a few steps behind her along the side of a road. It's not much, and it's hard to tell what the show's authors think they're doing when they draw those scenes, but they draw just enough of them to get me to watch the other four episodes hoping for more.
Anime music is often not J-Pop's proudest material, but FLCL, in keeping with its overall arbitrariness, uses predominantly existing music by a long-standing but apparently not terribly famous Japanese band called the pillows. The 2001 collection Fool on the planet is their best-of, and I'll now be ordering the rest in my next batch. Only a few of the songs from the show are in this set (including, though, the show's incendiary credits theme "Ride on shooting star"), but I've become instantly and deeply fond of just about all of them. Arguably the pillows are one of the least Japanese Japanese bands I've encountered, since if you can factor out the language they are rather unmistakably a guitar/guitar/bass/drums power-pop band. Imagine the Cavedogs without quite so much Who influence, the Sheila Divine without as much U2, Autoliner without as much Beach Boys, or perhaps Mike Mills fronting a marginally less trivial The Knack or Stereophonics finally remembering punk. The songs and arrangements are simple, but the guitars chime and rasp warmly, the bass and drums thump and crunch, and Sawao Yamanaka's voice is artlessly and reassuringly thin. If it were up to me, this would be the band (and the style) music magazines would be full of instead of the Hives/Streets/Stripes/Vines, the new defenders of basic rock foundations against prefab-pop silliness. Like Glay (although whether this is a Japanese thing or a me thing I couldn't say), the pillows understand the critical role of melancholy in almost any kind of rock, and thus slow down a few beats and say a few more words they care about, and so find enduring potential in what could otherwise be throwaways. "Fool on the planet" itself peals and soars with some of the same redemptive fervor as Radiohead's "Anyone Can Play Guitar". "Swanky Street" suggests that somewhere in Japan there is still pre-transistor recording gear. "I think I can" is a punk-rock cheerleading soundtrack, "Instant Music" boomy and sneering, "TRIP DANCER" splayed and elegantly weary. "Midnight Down" is what Nirvana could have sounded like if Kurt Cobain had married Helen Love instead of Courtney. "CARNIVAL" could be the pillows' answer to Stereophonics "Local Boy in the Photograph". "LITTLE BUSTERS" finds a shared purpose in "I Want to Hold Your Hand", "The Kids Are Alright" and "What Do I Get?". "Ride on shooting star" parlays stop-start drums and a snarled guitar hook into a slash-and-burn anthem as if Manic Street Preachers had an album before they discovered glam like Gary Numan's before he found synths. I could do without the squawky blues wankery of "NAKED SHUFFLE", and "Funny Bunny" doesn't quite undo the title, but "HYBRID RAINBOW", the last listed track, might be the best exit-music I've heard all year, quietly muttering verses exploding into all-out howled choruses. How they could have put it in the middle of an album, on its original release, I don't know. How they can undermine it, here, with some disposable rehearsal-tape bonus-track nonsense, I wish I thought I knew. I will work on theories.
pool bit boys: best 18 / hp
And if Glay have unexpectedly mastered quiet drama, and the pillows have perfected basic musical truths, my counterweight for the week is this possibly-posthumous 2000 compilation of the terrifyingly upbeat and profoundly unbasic flights of crazed turbo-pop ambition from two of the most astonishingly pretty boys you'll ever scrutinize in booklet photos trying to conclusively banish the stubborn suspicion that the brown-haired one is actually an astonishingly pretty girl. I don't know a thing about the pool bit boys' history, but I can report this much, beyond any risk of controversy: if you hated Savage Garden, you have absolutely no idea how much worse it could have been. Compared to Kinji and Dan, Darren and Daniel were practically Strunk and White. Imagine, first, stripping Savage Garden of all their slow songs. On the surface this probably sounds like an improvement, but I mean replacing them with more fast ones, not reducing your sentence. Second, send them off to spend a year running an A*Teens fan-site and compiling indexes of all the happy presets on any commercially-available synthesizer that has an arpeggiator. Third, suggest to them in a compellingly offhand manner that all real pop stars also rap, but then see to it that they are exposed to no hip-hop music made later than 1986, or outside of Hong Kong. And fourth, although this may be largely redundant after the other three, make sure to explain to them that it's not a genuine pop song unless it's so catchy that even nine women attempting to tread water in unison while wearing nose clips will be physically incapable of not smiling until it's over. You have now supplied the preconditions for the existence of the pool bit boys.
Whether you're ready to listen to them or not is another matter. Occasional indications otherwise notwithstanding, I have a tolerance limit for synth-pop sucrosity myself, and I'd guess that if you do, too, it's probably lower than mine. If you're not going to draw a line here, it's hard to see where you ever would. There is Japanese music that tries to be even more frivolous than this (see anything with "Musume" in the name), but it's not my opinion that it succeeds. If you have to try to make pop songs without melancholy, this is how. "SQUALL" and "Fantastic sign!" make the Macarena sound like "Spanish Harlem" and Per and Marie sound like Gillian and Dave (and not the X Files ones). If you used this as an anime soundtrack, the pictures would have to be able to induce seizures just to avoid being upstaged. I imagine Benny and Bjrn sitting slack-jawed in tattered asylum armchairs while, from the other side of soundproof glass, a group of medical students watches two bomb-squad technicians carry in a boom box with which to play them "lunatic treasure". If your head hasn't exploded by the end of the faux-reggae twitter of "Hallelujah" ( la "Pass the Dutchie, a Vat of Glue, and an Extra Barrel of Glitter, Kudasai"), you should consider patenting your hat. There are synth-drum flams in "EARTH STRIKER" that could be used for crowd control. "Nippon Ichi / Tokyo Japan is the Place to be" makes Feel So Bad's "Tokyo Power" sound like "Hotel California", and "What's life?" makes Larry Kirwan sound like Raekwon. Jean Michel Jarre, Vince Clarke and EMF might well all have self-immolated if they'd realized there was no other way to prevent this. Every fake piano note clangs with the insufferable glee of a Heart of Gold stateroom door snapping open, every drum fill insists on whirling around your head twice before hitting the downbeat it's headed for, every guitar sample is tailored to convey the most excitement possible without irritating exposed skin, and after every song is completed it is then recursively hypertrance-remixed three times for your safety. I don't think any of these songs ever gets any less laughably ill-conceived than somebody muttering, only fifteen seconds in, "Yo! Welcome back! 1998!".
And it's wonderful, wonderful, wonderful. This is exactly why Savage Garden were so disappointing in anything but their two or three best moments, and what was wrong with everything EMF did after Schubert Dip, and what's wrong with every leaden Pepsi commercial performed by mannequins so dim they can't even be taught to lip-sync believably. This may be the sunniest record I'll ever be able to bear. I don't think it actually makes me happier than any number of less outrageous variations on the idea, in the same way that finding a way to compress chocolate cookies into neutron-star density won't necessarily make for measurably superior cheesecake crust. But maybe we couldn't be entirely sure of that without running the experiment. Now we have, and now we know, and now nobody needs to ever listen to these boys again. Good work. Kill the lights and let's get out of here. No, no, I'm fine here in the dark, you go ahead, I'll be along after this song. Or maybe the next one.
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