The Only Remedy
429 · 17 April 03
Every Little Thing: Many Pieces
Before we begin, let the record note the following statistics about the material addressed in this column in the past year. By genre, with some multiple-counting, twenty-two of the last fifty-two issues discussed music identifiable as "rock" in some sense, sixteen covered something vaguely "pop", eight dealt with synth-pop or New Wave of some form, six could be folk, four metal, three punk, three country and two noise. By nation of origin, twenty-six covered American artists, ten dealt with British artists, nine Japanese, eight Canadian, seven Scandinavian and two from elsewhere on the globe. Six of the fifty-two did not even masquerade as music reviews, and one was a best-of-the-year issue. These distributions were not planned ahead of time, but looking over them I see no reason not to assume that they will more or less represent continuing patterns. New fascinations may intrude, but my fascinations are generally additive, so you can expect me to keep caring about these topics in about these proportions. I make no claim that these ratios reflect any sort of qualitative assessment of music around the world, they simply correspond to the erratic expansion of my own personal tastes and knowledge, starting in Texas and Massachusetts and gradually overcoming borders and oceans.
I am aware, of course, that my own set of tastes is unlikely to coincide exactly with yours. It's my column, and in the long run I'm going to write about whatever I want to, but to the extent that I recognize individual forks in my tastes as diverging from what could be quantitatively regarded as the main paths, I try to be cognizant of the indulgences I ask on a week-by-week basis. I don't write about progressive metal for solid months on end, I didn't spread twelve Aube albums out over twelve weeks. Some weeks you won't care about what I care about, but I don't intend to ever become single-minded. In particular, note that the issues exclusively about Japanese popular music were 377, 385, 396, 407, 411, 418, 421, meaning that only once have I ever asked anybody to suspend their unjustified and/or unexamined Asian-music prejudices more than once in a single month (and 421 probably merits an asterisk as a largely non-music-related column about lyric translation). In addition, of the nineteen different Japanese artists whose songs or albums I covered in those issues, only one of them could reasonably be characterized, by a language-neutral observer, as having no close correlate among the Western artists with whom they were intertwined, and ironically that one (Chitose Hajime) is well-known for a Western guest-appearance. So if you tune out when you realize that I am writing about music from Japan (and I know that you wouldn't do that, but some other people have confessed to such), you are engaging in musically meaningless and culturally suspect discrimination. Fifteen of those nineteen artists make music that belongs unambiguously to the set of styles for which my affections are documented in wearyingly exhaustive detail. They may be bands you haven't heard, but you will have if you keep reading. They may make records you have to mail-order, but we have the internet. If you like the kinds of music I like, you might well also like some of these other examples. If you don't, but read this column anyway, then there's no reason to object on the basis of the language in which music you don't intend to listen to is sung. And if you object on the grounds that you cannot understand the words, then a) in pop nonsense is often better than knowing, and b) that's the mistake I made for years, so allow me to do you the favor of shortening the duration of that error's dominion in your life.
I bring this all up, rather than pretending nobody complained, because dismissing Japanese music unheard has rarely seemed as inane to me as it does in my favorite moments of Many Pieces, the fifth studio album by the obdurately irrepressible duo-plus-studio-army Every Little Thing. Maybe you know just enough about Japanese pop to fear cutesy seventeen-year-old "models" chirping ineptly over factory-issue soft-pop karaoke bedding, demuring through brief and disposable "careers" that are really more about selling strangely colored sodas with incomprehensible names than about music that justifies itself. But I promise you that I will never attempt to trick you into buying a Morning Musume album. Japan produces their share of r&b-lite divalets, and I will not try to sell you any of those, either. Every Little Thing are pop traditionalists from the days before pop's time-horizon compressed so much that every song must not only define its three minute but expire after they end, and before music thought of itself as such an industry that a song must be a marketing campaign for its accessories. Kaori Mochida is not likely to go on any petulantly self-defeating benders in the hopes of being thought of as dark or dangerous. I don't expect her to suddenly pretend to be another ethnicity or nationality, I don't expect to see her wrapped in translucent Venetian blinds at any awards shows, and I don't scan the entertainment news waiting to hear that she is dating 50 Cent or anybody from BBMak.
Instead, ELT continue to make shiny, epic, exuberant, endlessly melodic, unapologetically synth-enhanced, effortlessly effervescent pop songs that more often than not appear to have been constructed by applying state-of-the-art equipment to carefully guarded songwriting wisdom passed down through generations. At times they rival the A*Teens for dizzy joy, at times Tuuli for fizzy toy-punk guitar crunch, at times they are the band Too Much Joy could have been if they were studio perfectionists. "Jump", the first advance single, remixed a notch or two still bouncier for the album, might as well be a template for magic, slyly muted guitar-bass-drums verse-thrum erupting into arpeggiator-buoyed expansiveness in the grand choruses and then even a fearlessly sparkling guitar solo. "flavor" is impish and crisp, galloping unhurriedly beneath brass and synth fusillades. "stray cat" is choppy and wistful, matsuura's arrangement edging towards GIZA's for Garnet Crow, but the quick, snapping "AMBIVALENCE" throws jagged string shards off of deftly crashing start-stop drums and chattering synth-bass. "Sasayaka na Inori" ("Little Prayer"), the third single, is a power-ballad shredded through a kaleidoscope, "nostalgia" sounds like one of Roxette's sappier slow songs extra-sugared for TV-theme reuse, and the almost-untitled seventh track is a couple minutes of idle la-la-ing, but "Kiwoku", the second single, swells into anthemic splendor, and the careening "TIE-DYE" sounds like one of Garnet Crow's pop moments unfettered by even the subconscious memory of a soft-rock other life. "Grip!", the immediate pre-album fourth single, may be the most incredulous Eighties synth-pop throwback since the back it throws towards, and on the other side of the planet Chris Ewen and Adam Goren should be berating themselves for not having thought of sandblasting the reverb goo off of their old Asia records and then playing them at one-and-a-half speed. "self reliance" is uncluttered and sweet, and "UNSPEAKABLE" is syrupy and potentially cloying, but for me they are redeemed by the finale, "Ai no Uta" ("Declaration of Love", approximately, and I had to call in my big backup dictionary to get the second kanji), which opens as a plangent piano-ballad, unfolds glittering wings and soars for a while, and then comes back to earth and refolds them and bows farewell. But even a picture-perfect sad-happy ending proves a little too somber, as after a couple minutes of silence ELT break down and romp through a postscriptural bonus so old-fashionedly rock-and-roll that I assume it's a cover. Guitars squawk, pianos clang, drums clatter, horns swell. I'm exhausted from smiling. I heard nearly half of this album before they finished it, but every song thrills me anew like I discovered them just this morning. They've clearly heard our music, and felt the seams where our pains adjoin our joys. Shouldn't we reciprocate?
Do As Infinity: TRUE SONG
If I were planning a world J-Pop package-tour, it would start with Every Little Thing and Do As Infinity. I can tell the difference between them, but they seem about as close in motivational spirit, to me, as any two bands ever do. For all I know, of course, they are actually mortal enemies and have to be pulled off each other in the aisles of Tokyo guitar stores on a nearly weekly basis; but I am still blessed with nowhere near enough ready Japanese vocabulary for reading gossip magazines, so I am safe with my illusions. DAI are slightly more rock-oriented than ELT, and perhaps slightly more current (or less affectionately nostalgic for New Wave). I thought their first three studio albums were well-enough summarized by the compilation Do The Best, but TRUE SONG, their fourth, holds my attention all the way through. "Kuusou Ryodan" ("Fantasy Brigade"?) opens the album gracefully, with quietly oscillating strings and Tomiko Van's increasingly assured lilt, but before long accelerates into blustery lead-guitar histrionics and stomping drums. "under the sun", last year's second single, is jubilantly methodical, deliberately repetitive guitar slashes and Van's range-spiking vocal measuring time against infectious drumming and reassuringly understated bass murmur. Guitars chop their way through most of "Good for you", too, synth noise whooshing around them as if the Wedding Present and Polara are slowly working towards an understanding, and "I can't be myself" rattles and whirs restlessly, drums clanging as Van stretches out across them. "Perfect Lady" tries to get by on a keening slide-guitar hook and a rushed sing-song chorus, but "Shinjitsu no Uta" (the title song, in translation), the first single, is probably the most intriguing style-synthesis in either ELT or DAI's repertoire, threads of wiry Japanese folk music woven into a sturdy, surging rock anthem. "Grateful Journey", as if self-conscious about that moment of sophistication, rips off all the native garb and slams into a straightforward pop-punk sprint Kay Hanley could profitably envy. The wriggly "One or Eight", "Shinjitsu no Uta"'s b-side, could have used a little more melody, I think, but the sultry "sense of life", tripping along on scratchy drum loops and bloopy water-drop noises, sounds to me like somebody handed them an American pseudo-r&b chart-hit checklist and they satisfied all the individual criteria without making anything remotely resembling the intended whole. "Wadachi" ("Rut", in the wheel-track sense) is start/stop in somewhat the same vein, but relaxes into its choruses. And "Ai no Uta", the conclusion, suddenly kicks through a fake wall nobody had even been looking at, as Gen Ittetsu joins in with a downright Celtic violin twirl, and suddenly it's transcontinental "Come On Eileen 2003", which maybe sounds like a bad idea, but cringing at concepts will enrich your life no more in music than it will in sushi, so don't panic. And this record, too, wastes our time with some blank space (iTunes feature request: an option to have it automatically skip all but five seconds of any silent span longer than that), but rewards patience (or holding down fast-forward) with a rousing concert rendition of "Touku Made" ("So Far Away"). I don't usually recommend reprising your best old song on subsequent albums, as it tends to project a lack of confidence in your newer material, but in this case this version seems to me to improve on the one on the recent live album in several important places, so I'd rather have it here than nowhere.
globe: LEVEL 4
There are only really three Japanese groups that I feel the need to attach caveats to when I say that I like them. One, the pool bit boys, is perilously silly, but in a way I've supported before in groups from other countries (albeit with caveats in those cases, too). One is Puffy, who are their own story. The other is globe, who are probably the closest I come to liking a Japanese band that I wouldn't like if they weren't Japanese. globe are essentially a Eurotrance band, and not an especially imaginative one at that. Frighteningly long stretches of their extremely long songs consist of lonely synth pulses cycling desultorily through rather uneventful parameter sweeps, as if Tetsuya Komuro has become drug-inducedly fascinated with the almost undetectably slow rotation of his hand on some small and not terribly consequential control-room knob. They have a group member whose only job is muttering in French, their drum machines seem to only have two patterns (mordant thump and flanged robot-flam), and as of this album have added a fourth member whose unique contribution I am at a loss to identify. A part of me suspects that this is second-rate new-century disco in the same way that the coolest dance-club in Hartford still isn't exactly Ibiza.
But as readily as I can identify the virtues globe lacks the authority to claim, I somehow stubbornly always enjoy them anyway. The sparseness of the arrangements seems to save the songs from being overbearing, to me, and I find myself pleasantly reminded of Jean Michel Jarre-esque synth-rock first principles. If real club dancers would sniff at this, that only makes me more sure of my fondness for it. Keiko isn't a particularly distinctive or versatile singer, even, but apparently I don't need her to be. globe are, for me, the inspired sum of inadequate parts, and when I'm in exactly the right mood, listening to them is a weird kind of flying, drifting into and out of contact with the music as if the gravity that would usually hold or repel my attention has stopped working and left me at the mercy of ambient airflow. And although I probably still think Lights/Lights2 has their finest moments, precisely the lack of comparable standouts on LEVEL 4 makes it more effectively hypnotic. For me this is background music for when I want background to be all there is.
If you're going to be afraid of somebody in Japanese pop, be afraid of Puffy. They're young girls, or at least they were when they started, and they preside over a sprawling media empire despite not appearing to possess anything you'd strictly refer to as talents. They've been to the US, and Sony seems to have big plans for them (although not big enough that they've bothered to release their new album here yet). They elude the dreary idol-pop stereotypes by not quite being up to idol standards for bland perfection, and by having the uncommon sense to hire actual musicians to write their songs for them. At times, on their earlier albums, they style-hop with the equanimity you only get by having no focused self-image, but on tour they fronted a surprisingly centered rock band, and when they let Andy Sturmer have his way he wrote them "Love So Pure", which sounds to me like the pop-song form very nearly perfected.
For Nice., not only do they let Sturmer write them a few more songs, they let him write them all, play half the instruments, and produce. So if you're going to insist you don't like Japanese music, you better be aware that sometimes "Japanese music" amounts to Jellyfish on summer vacation without Jon Brion or Jason Falkner to bog it down. Which, as far as I'm concerned, is basically fantastic. "Akai Buranko" ("Red Swing", despite my once smugly transliterating "buranko" as a katakana rendition of the English word "bronco") is prickly power-pop with a crash-cymbal-laden chorus that makes me air-drum spasmodically. "Tokyo Nights" splits the difference between "Video Killed the Radio Star" and Puffy's own "Asia no Junshin". "Angel of Love" sounds like a lullaby cut adrift from some fringe of the Sixties, and "Sayounara" (with US tour companion Bleu playing guitar as thanks for Puffy singing backup on his song called "Sayonara") is the matching summer-swoon pop confection, but the adorably blistering "Invisible Tomorrow", with Ami getting a rare guitar credit, snaps back to stripped-down cute-punk exuberance. "Sankyuu" ("Thank You"; there aren't any "th" sounds in Japanese) is beepy and comic, and Sturmer's weakness for in-joke genre exercises derails the surf-pop pastiche "Long Beach Nightmare", but the token English song, "Your love is a drug", sounds like a Josie and the Pussycats who actually remember the aesthetics of their Archies origins. Sturmer gets distracted again by the twitchy first-ska-revival strut "K 2 G Kimi ni Go!", but regroups for the mellow, rolling "Shiawase" ("Luck", or "Happiness"). "Atarashii Hibi" ("New Days") sounds like the Knack with a demented organ player, and "Tomodachi" ("Friend") is a disturbingly diligent cross between "You Can't Hurry Love" and "A Town Called Malice" that somehow comes out completely without impatience or malice. This is all at least as scattered and miscellaneous as it sounds, and Sturmer exacerbates the chaos as often as he alleviates it, but even so, this is Puffy's most consistent and coherent album so far, by a wide margin.
But do you care? Would you care? Beats me. Maybe not. There are a million reasons not to fall in love, and if you're determined to find one, you probably can. But then, on the other hand, sometimes we still manage to. I say only that I don't know why you'd be any less likely to care about these bands than any other four I love. I suppose it's possible that I've internalized something about J-Pop, like I long ago internalized whatever Celtic thing makes bagpipes sound like a noise we help the wind sing, and I can no longer hear the element that makes this the sound of nerve endings shredding for somebody else. But I really don't think so. I think this simply isn't hard. I think Japan is now as much a part of our common musical world as Britain or Canada or Finland, and you can ignore them, just as you can ignore whatever else you need to ignore to keep your existence manageable. But know that how you draw your borders doesn't change the land, it changes you.