The Heart Is a Language
418 · 30 January 03
Tsukiko Amano: Meg & Lion
If I were a journalist, I'd have found out some information about Tsukiko Amano by now, and could thus serve some tangible function by relating it to you. For that matter, if she performed in English I'd probably have found out some things by now whether I meant to or not. Or if I were farther along in my Japanese studies. Or if I were exactly where I am, but not on a break between class terms. She made two of my three favorite records last year and was easily my favorite new artist, she is my favorite musical discovery from my entire Japanese experience so far and possibly my favorite new musical discovery of any kind in the last three years. And yet, I really don't know much. There are pictures in the booklet, but they're elaborately staged; I'll guess that she's twenty-eight, but it wouldn't shock me to find out I'm off by ten years in either direction. I've seen a couple video clips, and in them she holds a guitar with intent, but she's not credited with playing it on either album. She wrote the songs, producer Hirotomo Tokura did the arrangements. I'm not yet up to translating the complete album myself, and when I ask Google about "tsukiko amano lyrics" all it volunteers is the unhelpful suggestion that I read my own review of her first album. So I don't know. I don't know what I'm supposed to know about this record before I hear it. I don't know what context it thinks it exists in. I'm sure there are other people on this continent who have heard it, but I don't know where or how or whom. Twenty years of learning ways of inhabiting music, and suddenly I'm right back where I started, alone in my room at night with the record playing and no better plan than just listening to it.
And as has probably occurred to you before me, this is itself one of the best gifts I've given myself with all this mail-ordering and patience. In the real world, we rarely get to do anything over, and even when we do, the allegories are never this idealized. Listening to this record is as close as I expect to ever again come to my current self, with all its cacophonies of expectations and insights and wisdom and delusion, being able to watch over the shoulder of my younger self, dreaming of all that, as it encounters a new and still unprocessed feeling. This is what it felt like hearing Don't Look Back for the first time, and Moving Pictures, and Setting Sons and Hounds of Love. Or, more accurately, this is what I think those things felt like, but that is me at thirty-five trying to remember myself at fifteen and eighteen, and I don't know where we'll find a subject-matter expert half as well-informed and a tenth as untrustworthy. So I move the uncertainty around. Maybe this isn't my fifteen- or eighteen-year-old self I'm channeling, so instead of seeing a true picture in the hazy distance, I'm peering at a false one with a magnifying glass. Somewhere Heisenberg is smirking at the idea that there was ever any other option.
But this is what my thirty-five-year-old self and my fifteen-year-old self think together as we fuse in the sound of this record, phrased in a bit of theatrics my best high-school English teacher was fond of and my fifteen-year-old self has brought along: Oh. My. God. I think it only really meant he was excited (there was a hand-gesture that went along with it, as if the words were being flung onto the face of Mount Rushmore), but there are reasons that even in atheism I still invoke religion for emphasis: involuntary reactions to music are a manifestation of spirituality. It is my heart that listens. Music that reaches me this way, especially when it's effectively wordless (and arguably large aspects of my experience of Tori and Low are as far removed from coherent language as my experience of this), skips straight past all my rational filters, and thus seems (whether it is or not) to be a direct transmission of humanity.
Then again, Tsukiko Amano's music seems to be unnervingly close to what you'd get by meticulously calculating the exact ecstatic center point of my musical tastes, so perhaps I'm just a target. Guitars chop, roar and churn, straying frequently into cheerful bluster. Basses pop assertively, drums gallop and clatter. String grandeur comes and goes. Tsukiko's expressive range runs from elegant to incendiary. Imagine Nina Gordon without Veruca Salt's edge sanded off, or Fiona without bulbous label execs croaking "sexier!" in her left ear, or Kylie and the Manic Street Preachers if they'd both had the sense to just have her join for good, or the Slingbacks with a better studio and a lot more time. "Ningyou", the advance single, opens the album with sweeping strings and pinging, doll-like toy piano ("Ningyou" means "doll", not to be confused with the single's b-side, "Ningyou", which means "mermaid"), but after about twenty dreamy seconds it explodes into pyrotechnic rock effusion. The verses turn out to be rather muted, guitars murmuring and pealing behind Tsukiko's legato melody, but the chorus abandons any pretenses to the non-epic, and careens into frenetic catharsis. The bridge, with bass burbling like asteroid-sized pop-rocks smacking into a small inland sea composed of pear soda, is a minor masterpiece in itself, and the song eventually bows out in the same exaggerated politeness with which it entered.
But this immediately turns into a transition to the impish "Nichiyoubi" ("Sunday"), faster but in, at least initially, a somewhat smaller mode. Drums sputter dryly, and the guitars are undersized and braying. Tsukiko has pulled back into herself. But then this chorus arrives, and nobody can control themselves any longer. The strings track Tsukiko through gyroscopic rolls, the guitars get off the ground, the rhythm section steps back for a second to let everybody else past and then swarms in after them. She sings something about a mischievous conversation, which seems like a fine way to spend a weekend. And an American label would probably have tried to talk her into cutting the thing down under three minutes, but it's a rock song, and if you can't spare five minutes and twenty-two seconds, go half-listen to something else.
The first time I played this, wondering whether Sharon Stones would prove to have been a declaration or a fluke (and half thinking I should have put off playing it for three more weeks, so it couldn't screw up my best-of plans somehow), my confidence wavered only once. Track three is called "Dandelion". (Or, transliteratively, "da-n-de-ra-i-o-n"; the native word for the flower is one of the few Japanese nouns you may already know, due to it having been used as the title of (and literally illustrated on a sign in) the movie Tampopo.) Tsukiko shuts off the rock electricity for a few minutes, opting instead to trip through a bouncy, clipped semi-dance interlude woven between guttural, lurching bass lines, shuffly drums and sinuous guitar blur. "Fly", she flutters. But figuring out whether I loved even this required listening to the next track, "Tokei dai no kane" ("Large Clock Bell"?). A soft piano nestles in a cloud of strings, something that might be the bell chimes in the distance. The band returns, ready but in no hurry, and together they walk through a wistful requiem for whatever the clock represents ("You're still standing; / While the train shook, I also shook"?). As a pair, these two songs seem to me to bracket the style of the rest of the album, and the whole thing wouldn't work without them.
Rock energy re-forms gradually. "Hitsuji" is still slow but vaguely menacing, at least until you realize that the English bits are not "shapes of me, of my feelings" or "ships of me, I'll fly through" (either of which could be assigned a long rock pedigree), but in fact "sheep swept me off my feet". "Hitsuji" means "sheep", and if you're still clinging to the idea that this isn't a very loud lullaby, the gauzy "oyasumi"s mean "goodnight". This sets up another brilliant segue, though, as some rabid guitar squall at the end of "Hitsuji" is suddenly squelched and "Gin neko" ("Silver Cat") begins with a sharp flourish, hissing hi-hats and surging bass and Tsukiko with the band attached to her fingertips. By the end they've got the guitar and bass linked, the cymbals crashing, crinkly noises jangling in the background, and lead-guitar hooks as bleary as you could possibly demand.
A quiet drum-machine counts off the measures of "Lion" ("ra-i-o-n") while sleepy piano rings. Some kind of small motor whirs. Somebody plays sighing chords on a synthesizer they found in a crate of stuff they hadn't opened since the Eighties. But this, too, finds its way back to rock, and the choruses are irrepressibly grand. After a long fade, "pigeon" pulls out the gadgets again, setting guitar sprawl against whooshing synth-drums, shimmery keyboard flashes and a rubberily growling bass groove. And then, with the end nearly in sight, Tsukiko and the band kick out all the remaining stops and blast into the writhing, clattering double-time sprint "Tomu pankusu" (which an endearingly inept illustration insists is a phonetic rendition of "Tom Punks"). And as unadorned as that is, "Kuremuchisu" (it looks so dignified that way; I think I won't tell you what it means) is conversely grand, a graduation waltz for sentimental angel school, every rousing impulse given one last stage.
And then it's done. Only ten songs, and although they fill nearly fifty minutes, they feel like they could have been thirty-five. If Sharon Stones felt like an unapologetic debut, to me, then Meg & Lion feels like a textbook-perfect second album, a same-year second album that can hold its own against This Is the Modern World and Lionheart. It's much too foreign to have a commercial chance here, and not nearly exotic enough to be a cult object. It's merely great. It's expansive, assured rock music untroubled by irony or crossovers or trends. The Pacific Ocean is just big enough to have insulating properties, and on an island on the other side of it some things we've lost are still possible.
the brilliant green: The Winter Album
Tsukiko Amano made my two favorite Japanese straight-ahead rock records last year. Glay made my favorite Japanese atmospheric, beautiful rock record. My favorite Japanese pop record, and another thing that sent me immediately scurrying after a back-catalog, was an unassuming-looking thing called The Winter Album by a band I'd already written off, for some reason, named "the brilliant green". I don't remember what of theirs I heard first, and I don't remember why I thought it boded poorly. For that matter, I don't exactly remember what made me give them another chance. Something from Los Angeles, their third album, my copy of which arrived the week their fourth one came out. I'd like to say that I listened to the whole third record before turning around and ordering the fourth, but I think I kind of didn't. As I recall, the serene "FALLING STAR IN YOUR EYES" was still playing, and that's only about halfway through.
It turns out that the brilliant green finally deliver something I'd expected long ago from another source, and although I've no evidence that this will make sense to anybody but me, I'm going to tell you anyway because you never know. I had an idea in my mind, the first time I read about Elephant Six, of what their collective sound would be like. I imagined it far brighter than it actually was, a lot less retro, its experimentalism brash instead of evasive. Most of all, I imagined it being Pop, the way I think about pop, chiming and melodic and shiny, a bridge between the lowest fi of early GbV and the highest fi of A*Teens and Roxette. The word "Psychedelic" should have been a clue, but I never know what anybody means by that unless it's "stoned noodling", and the "pop" in "psychedelic pop" would (in my system) preclude noodling. But in practice, for me, Elephant Six amounted to one stunning Neutral Milk Hotel record and a lot of bands I stopped buying when I finally noticed how much I disliked them.
The brilliant green are a trio in what I've come to realize is a fairly common J-Pop configuration, two male musicians and one female vocalist. Bassist Shunsaku Okuda handles most of the studio tasks and writes most of the songs. Guitarist Ryo Matsui contributes a few more, and Tomoko Kawase sings. Shojiro Konishi plays drums on most of these, but apparently hasn't earned enough credits for membership. There's no Japanese writing on the cover of this album, only one Japanese subtitle in the track list, and several songs are sung largely or entirely in English. If you are intrigued by Japanese pop but afraid of it being a little too Japanese, this would be a safe way to start.
But I am not crazy about the brilliant green because they're safe, I'm crazy about them because I don't know more than a handful of bands anywhere on the planet who are capable of pop moments as perfect as the best ones here. I have four particularly in mind: the soaring choruses of "I'M SO SORRY BABY", in which half a dozen Tomokos swirl into a redemptive alternation between languages, like neither English nor Japanese are big enough to hold love and pain at once; the verses of the clicking, humming "That boy waits for me", buoyed on a nervous drum-machine patter even Sean Tollefson might envy; the breathtaking state-changes in "Rainy days never stays" when the crystal verses smack into the steel chorus-bulkheads; and the even more ingeniously abrupt jumps into and out of the choruses in "Running so high", set up by a fabulously unarticulated machine-fill snare splatter. Even if you like nothing else here, I feel like those four moments should be enough. After more study than isolated moments would argue for, though, I've decided that as an album this is better than its parts. The thing I thought I was going to get from Elephant Six, and didn't, was a seditious sense of play. I wanted the feeling of enormous bubblegum bubbles suddenly shattering like sugar-glass, of Sesame Street innocence played through distortion pedals, of Powerpuff Girls exuberance that wasn't couched in glib kitch.
What E6 descriptions didn't lead me to expect, and what I rarely think to expect from anybody and so am almost invariably surprised to discover, is that this record interlaces its charged, infectious pop with heartbreakingly sweet ballads. The pop ballad is a sadly misunderstood art form, all-to-often confused with the excruciating and discouragingly frequently mislabeled gutless space-filler. The Spice Girls' "2 Become 1" is a space-filler. The Bee Gees' "Too Much Heaven" is a space-filler. Britney's "Sometimes". Everything by the Backstreet Boys except the two or three you could start riots with. These songs are the musical equivalent of porn films edited for airline use. A pop ballad, to me, should be sweeping, not syrupy. It needs space, and composure, and a little bit of momentum. It needs to evoke melancholy rapture or reluctant transformation, not slow-motion line-dancing in which you come to a complete stop between each step. Shona Laing's "Soviet Snow" is a pop ballad. Echo and the Bunnymen's "Ocean Rain". Cyndi Lauper's "Time After Time", Game Theory's "Throwing the Election", Big Country's "Girl With Grey Eyes" and "Broken Heart (Thirteen Valleys)". All of U2's best moments, all my favorite love songs, most of Del Amitri's Waking Hours. "Karma" and "Lovesick" and "You Didn't Kiss Me". The Winter Album has four or five of these, depending on exactly where you draw the line. "Flowers", early in the album, is string-lined and kind, and not afraid to go through with a key modulation you can hear coming two verses away; "Forever to me" is disguised by a bit of extra bluster, but the lilting melody through the final minute should resolve most doubt; the muted "The night has pleasant time" is the purest ballad of the set, benedictory and lullabic; "Day after day" might be a little too bouncy for some people to count, but to me its shyness compensates; and "escape", the finale, has a plaintive sine-wave whimper you couldn't use in any other kind of song, and ends in perfect suspension.
And in and around these, between the glittering spikes and the glass-flat waves, the brilliant green made an album. The more moments I tease apart, the more surprised I am that they connect. The handclaps in "Holidays!" hardly sound like they could be performed by adults. The bracing guitar hooks in "I'M SO SORRY BABY" would have wrecked the Go-Go's or the Bangles before they ever got started. "Forever to me" nearly swallows Tomoko without noticing. "I'M JUS' LOVIN' YOU" is so understated that every thirty seconds I'm surprised to realize it hasn't actually been fading out. But the contrary impulses play off each other. Redemption overwhelms restraint but ends up grounded. Deft production details provide the finishing touches on already-near-perfect songs, like the stranded counterpoint voice that interpolates the English lines into "I'M SO SORRY BABY", the vocal slicing in the middle of "That boy waits for me", the beepy falsettos in "Rainy days never stays" and the guitar- and synth-feedback scrawls in "Running so high". Stretch Princess's Fun With Humans was more focused and consistent, where The Winter Album keeps dancing outside the lines. But that, of course, is a large part of the fun. Most Western pop bands would not admit this much clamor, and most of the few that might would overshoot and wreck their songs. This album, for me, explains what was wrong with School of Fish's Human Cannonball, the Cavedogs' Soul Martini, EMF's Cha Cha Cha, the Eels' Souljacker and the new Del Amitri and Simple Minds albums, not to mention a thousand other records whose problems are far simpler. What, you might ask, if I'm so in love with a language that I don't really hear what's said in it, and in truth there's nothing special about these records? What, it seems to me you'd be asking, if I had no heart? Kokoro wa kotoba desu. We are afraid of pop, here, or afraid of not fearing it, and we let our fear polarize our world. We back our brightest hopes into corners, and then turn around and celebrate anything so self-evidently inane that we can't possibly be held responsible for it. We tolerate commercial television and factory fast-food. We gulp stale air and don't change the stations. And the things with their own souls, the ones that show sneakily defiant potential, get their shoes glued to the floor while we shout down our self-consciousness and frantically draw stoning lots to decide who will smugly disdain them and who will claim to have only liked them ironically, or before. But there are so many other options. What if everybody just liked what they like? What if nobody bothered to make things that nobody needs? What if we pretended so hard that unanswerable questions have answers that we managed to think of a few?