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Otoko no Hito no Koe
Glay: Rare Collectives Vol. 1 & 2
As is often the case with genres I discover, I have begun with Japanese music in the shallowest possible present, and am only slowly beginning to work backwards into even its most recent past. Due to factors that I'm pretty sure have nothing to do with me, the bulk of the Japanese artists I've latched onto don't actually have much past. Out of about a hundred non-retrospective Japanese albums currently in my iPod, only sixteen of them have original release dates earlier than five years ago, and those come from working backwards through the catalogs of only five artists (the lowish-fi rock trio pillows, the crazed punk-pop-metal band Feel So Bad, the borderline hair-metal band Siam Shade, the eventually-atmospheric dance-pop group globe, and Glay), all of whom I found through more-recent compilation appearances or best-ofs.
Glay nearly qualify as elders amidst my throng of three- and four-year-old synth-pop bands. Hai to Daiyamondo, their first studio album, came out in 1994, and last year's Unity Roots & Family, Away was their eighth. They've already put out two best-ofs, two soundtrack albums, five music-video collections and ten concert videos. Along that way, they've also released twenty-eight singles, nearly all of them with some non-album tracks, which is a lot more Glay songs I might conceivably enjoy, but finding them, this much later, is so self-evidently impossible that I didn't even consider trying.
No need, it turns out. Rare Collectives, a four-CD collection sold as two separate two-disc packages, compiles essentially every non-karaoke b-side from the entire run of singles, plus two Japanese TV themes, a tribute cover, a tour-pamphlet bonus song, a couple interstitial snippets, a stray remix and one odd collaboration, for a total of forty-three tracks over slightly more than three hours.
There are, of course, b-side bands and non-b-side bands. A band's willingness to release b-sides may not necessarily indicate, to anybody's subjective listening judgment, that their studio albums cannot contain their meaningful output. The b-sides may be dreck. Or they may be brilliant, in ways nobody could ever deduce from the a-sides or the albums.
Or, as in Glay's case, the b-sides may largely be more songs that just didn't fit. The first disc of Volume 1, which simply walks through most of the 1994-1998 b-sides in order, sounds to me like approximately as pertinent and inspiring a survey of those years as the compilation which sets out to do the same task by design. More surprisingly, even, I think it comes very close to being able to pass for a plausible ninth studio album, despite containing nothing that postdates album five. "Life", their very first b-side, chirps and pings and spins with very nearly the same mature grace as much of Unity Roots & Family, Away. "INNOCENCE" snarls warmly, "REGRET" clatters and surges like a military circus march, and they're up to "GONE WITH THE WIND" and "ACID HEAD", from the fifth single, before a dried-out production betrays the tracks' age. "Believe in fate" is twangy, headlong guitar pop, but it segues into the grand orchestral version of "Together", which edges towards "November Rain"-grade power-ballad pomp. "Haru o Ai Suru Hito" ("Spring-Loving Man"?) reprises Glay's best impression of what an unselfconsciously cheerful Eno/Lanois-era U2 might have sounded like. "I'm yours" is a rumbling rave-up, "Little Lovebirds" a slow anthem spiked with melancholy lead-guitar hooks. The terse, cartoonish "Doku Rokku" is the closest thing here to a throwaway, but "Sutoroberi Sheiku" ("Strawberry Shake"; sound it out) is a three-part movie crammed into less than three minutes. "It's dying It's not dying" follows the form of many later choir-led fade-out epics, and the somber TV theme that ends the disc draws the exit music out to the end.
The second disc of Volume 1 rounds up six live b-sides, captured in a variety of fidelities. These don't tend to interest me as much, since Glay's studio polish is part of how I like them, but they don't otherwise have a live album in non-DVD form, and for me the disc is salvaged by the paired studio and concert versions of Glay's electrifying breakneck cover of hide's "MISERY".
The first disc of Volume 2 picks up the b-side chronology again in 1999, but paradoxically the more recent b-sides remind me much less of the more recent albums. Hi-hat twitter propels "HELLO MY LIFE", "summer FM" is appropriately sunny, "BROTHEL CREEPERS" is quick and blaring, "WHY DON'T WE MAKE YOU HAPPY" is unexpectedly hushed and Kings of Convenience-ish, and the band throw themselves into the TV theme "Itsuka" will earnest a-side enthusiasm. But too many of the rest of these, to me, sound like outtakes in various ways I thought the first disc didn't, overplaying mannerisms or trying to get by without chorus hooks.
And there isn't quite four discs of material, lengthwise, but the sub-half-hour final disc, assembled through clever omissions from the preceding chronology, turns out to be an ingenious miniature suite that temporarily reimagines Glay as if they were always in their occasional brightest, snappiest Powerpuff Girls mode. Two sample-collage fragments set the mood, "neuromancer" careens along on manic drum-machine thump, "Ai" buzzes and beeps, "GIANT STRONG FAUST SUPER STAR" is a fight song for (and possibly by) robots, and a 1999 remix of "I'm Yours" might as well have been done by Mojo Jojo. The irrepressible "Dosanko Shiisaa" (performed with the comic troupe Garage Sale under the combined name "Galay") could be Glay's answer to the Wonder Stuff's "Dizzy" with Vic Reeves. And even "Cynical", which could easily have fit in on the first disc on its own merits, takes on an impish gleam in this twitchy company.
Taken all together, this seems to me like about as much as I could ever hope for from the premise of collecting unpremeditated b-sides. Three of the four discs have coherent individual identities, and the other one satisfies completists but contains the damage. This is still not the place for newcomers to begin (my recommendations would be Unity Roots & Family, Away for ambience, 2001's magnificent One Love for scope, or 1996's Beloved for focus and representativeness), but if you get through the rest of the catalog, you'll enjoy this next.
BUMP OF CHICKEN: Snow Smile
BUMP OF CHICKEN, who might have Glay's place in my life if they had more records, started working towards a fourth one late last year with the first single since jupiter. Whereas with Glay (and Siam Shade and Feel So Bad) I usually like whole albums as much or more than individual songs, with BUMP OF CHICKEN (and pillows) my reactions to individual songs vary much more widely, an effect that BUMP OF CHICKEN exacerbate by indulging in drastic style swings. "Snow Smile" (actually "Suno Sumairu") itself is oddly muted, relying on Motou Fujiwara's frayed singing to give the instrumentation a purpose. An unlisted bonus, marooned on track thirty-three of a disc that only claims to have two, is a disposable "Wipe Out" pastiche. But in between, the listed b-side, "Holiday" (literally "Horidei", another phonetic one), is almost perfect, implacable drums snapping under burbling bass and Byrdsy guitars, while Fujiwara sings nearly within himself and the band sighs in support.
BUMP OF CHICKEN: sailing day
The unlisted track on the second new single is a jittery acoustic rant that seems to be plagued by mariachi nightmares. The official b-side, the pingingly Glay-like "Rosutoman" (which I assume is supposed to be read "Rastaman", although there's nothing remotely reggae-like about the music, so maybe not), is airy and poised, slipping deftly into gear for the humming choruses. But this time the title track is the prize, a restless sprint held together by bass runs as the drums drop in and out. Rhythm guitars fill in spaces, lead hooks spiral up out of the middle or squeal along the sides, Fujiwara swoops from quick, close verses to arching, yearning choruses. In these moments I'm willing to believe that BUMP OF CHICKEN can join Idlewild and Jimmy Eat World in dispelling the disappointments I've accumulated from a decade of passionate rock bands that skidded astray, single-handedly fulfilling the collective scattered potentials of "Years Later", "Stone Cold Sober", "Anyone Can Play Guitar", "La Tristesse Durera", "Local Boy in the Photograph", "Driftwood", "Sixty Mile Smile", "Hey, Jealousy", "Freshmen" and "We Are the Normal".
Gackt: Kimi ga Oikaketa Yume
"BUMP OF CHICKEN", "Glay" and "Gackt" are three of my favorite Japanese band names, "BUMP Of CHICKEN" because the capitals mean I get to always say it like I'm annoyed, "Glay" because it's obviously supposed to sound like English (you can't even write it in Japanese) but means nothing, and "Gackt" because it sounds like Bill the Cat struggling with a hairball. This last is about the diametric opposite of the image Gackt the artist is aiming for, which is more like a cross between an overeducated Trent Reznor with a period-costume fetish and an airbrushed Geoff Tate with even more opera training, or perhaps like Tom Jones recast as an androgynous elf prince. Gackt's hyper-ornate former band, Malice Mizer, made Tate's Queensrÿche sound like AC/DC, and the three Gackt solo albums, Mars, Rebirth and Moon, may be a little more propulsive but are even more intricately conceived and meticulously produced. If you can't abide histrionically mannered singing, you'll despise Gackt. Investigate if you wish that Steven King books were written like Nabokov, or that you could somehow combine The Matrix's cool with Spirited Away's sophistication, or that Sisters of Mercy sounded more cloistered. "Kimi ga Oikaketa Yume" (something like "You Are (My) Chased Dream"), presumably an advance single for an eventual fourth album, rides on frantic drums, sinuous guitars, hooks that tangle each other into lattice, and Gackt's unearthly voice slithering along the curves of the music. The b-side, "birdcage", starts out with measured acoustic guitar and dolorous viola, but after a couple minutes runs out of patience with this restraint and freaks completely out. Karaoke versions of both allow you to verify that you cannot sing like this.
T.M.Revolution: coordinate
Performances styles in Japanese music seem, at least in my erratic experience so far, to be even more rigorously gender-linked than they tend to be in the US and the UK. Tsukiko Amano and Nanase Aikawa are rare women whose styles are more rock than pop, and Feel So Bad is the only wholly inarguable rock band I've found that has a female singer. In the other direction, although there are plenty of sappy Japanese boy bands, I've found very few male artists with the kind of shiny turbo-pop exuberance of globe, move or Ayumi Hamasaki. I did find the belief-staggeringly cheerful pool bit boys, but they were defunct by the time I discovered them, and it's somewhat unsatisfying to take life-affirmation from the dead. T.M.Revolution, Takanori Nishikawa's relentless mechano-pop project, actually existed before pool bit boys, and has outlasted them. It took me a while to figure out that he used to go by "Takanori Makes Revolution" before contracting the first two words, which slowed down my usual catalog-acquisition process. But I found a best-of, to stand for the handful of other albums, and coordinate is the first new one while I've been paying attention.
The primary difference between the pool bit boys and T.M.Revolution, as far as I'm concerned, is that Takanori does not imagine himself a rapper. This is a great mercy, and even when the music to these songs has the blocky awkwardness of cut-and-paste sample games, putting real singing over it keeps it from being anywhere near as embarrassing as the pool bit boys at their most horrifyingly postural. Otherwise, the two are comparably fearless devotees of the obdurately simple-minded art of writing fast dance-pop songs that emphasize their melodies in the way that a precocious five-year-old with a crate of pink crayons and a lot of spare time can "emphasize" a drawing of a pony. All drumbeats sound like they were devised using equipment by Cuisinart, all electric guitar noises sound faked, all good ideas are repeated to what is hoped to be just short of the point of pain.
The result, when it works, which for me is most of the time, is like a less shrill Ayumi Hamasaki with no diva pretensions to get in the way, or a Per Gessle bobble-head doll duct-taped to a riding mower in a rock slide, or maybe Savage Garden as a video-game kung-fu style. "ABORT//CLEAR" bounds by like Run DMC's "Walk This Way" re-remixed for Ricky Martin. "Out Of Orbit" kicks more asses than the Backstreet Boys or NSync could ever hope to field. "INVOKE" sounds like globe spinning hopelessly out of control. "NEO SPHERE" is what the Thompson Twins could have been if they were young and naive again now, or how Shampoo might have grown up if they'd decided to taunt the Spice Girls for never buying any Jean Michel Jarre records. "BRIGADE" combines old Duran Duran flair with a little of Gackt's preening and a lot of drum-machine acceleration. The jagged, anxious "Juggling" has a short acoustic-guitar introduction, which is sort of like making the tip of a radioactive Twinkie out of bagel dough, but "Tide Moon River" rides the steely acoustic-guitar strums all the way through, and reminds me strongly of Roxette demos. "BOARDING", with its standard kick-snare groove, seems strangely becalmed after so much heavy pulsebeat in the other songs, and "THUNDERBIRD" lets its own solos distract it, but the truncated TV version of "INVOKE", in between them, keeps the pace from flagging much. I pause a moment, when I get to the end, because by rights I should be somewhere between a sugar coma and abject motion-sickness by that point. But all I want to do is go again.
Number Girl: Sapporo Omoide in My Head Joutai
T.M.Revolution are an extreme, but the truth is that pop extravagance and production ambition, in various forms, are basically my growing Japanese canon's unifying themes. I don't know whether this is cause or effect, but I seem to have reached a stage in my life where bands as transparently shallow as globe or day after tomorrow, at their most plastic, seem charming and uplifting to me, while Broken Social Scene bore me into amnesia and the New Pornographers seem intolerably smug. I can identify at least six distinct factions of kids out here in the West, all of whose music I don't even begin to care about, which is enough to make me wonder whether I was wrong, and age will catch up to my musical taste just like it caught up to all those other people I figured just got lazy. But if I get what the kids are listening to in Japan, then maybe my alienation back home is just temporary, like it has been every other time so far.
Or maybe all these Japanese bands are just behind, and when you adjust for culture lag, liking them doesn't really earn me any currency. It can't help that when I find a new Japanese love, after a couple mail-order cycles stuck on what I already knew, it turns out to be yet another way to retreat into my past under a pretense of moving forward. Number Girl sound like the Pixies. I realize that enough bands get compared to the Pixies, these days, to make a skeptically-minded person wonder if that's now all they teach kids about pre-Nirvana "alternative" music history, but Number Girl don't just sound like an era that the Pixies can be thought to retrospectively represent, they actually sound like the Pixies. Start from Surfer Rosa, but imagine that the Pixies never met Gil Norton. I still believe in "Debaser" and "Monkey Gone to Heaven", I think, but "Wave of Mutilation", "Here Comes Your Man" and "There Goes My Gun" now sound like the beginnings of the sell-out, and I've become convinced that "Dig for Fire" was the Pixies' "Don't You (Forget About Me)". Don't let that happen. Switch the deranged shouting from Spanish to Japanese, obviously, but let the band's playing get more angular as their technique improves, not less. Never let them turn into an archetype.
Number Girl have a bunch of studio albums, too, but for the moment all I know is this double live album, which shrieks through a twenty-one-song abstract of what the other ones must be. Not only do these songs sound like the Pixies, this record makes me feel like Surfer Rosa made me feel when it was new, shaken and alive, and temporarily unsure what point there is to other records. Crashing drums, wiry guitars, bass teetering on the edge of dissonance, hoarse shouting: this is how the Pixies reconciled the Minutemen, Big Black, Black Flag, Hüsker Dü, Gang of Four, the English Beat and Joe Jackson. This is what Albini heard, and left alone, and what Norton didn't hear and thus couldn't capture. All these songs mash together, blissfully, and I haven't bothered looking up what order they originally happened in. This album is a hundred minutes of morbid impatience, Shutoku Mukai's howl bouncing back off the crowd like neither of them will be satisfied until somebody bleeds. We don't know how to do this, here, anymore. Number Girl can do, at speed, what we have to stop and take apart to understand. The last American band who made me feel this way was Helms, and they had to slow to a dead stop to make their point. Sometimes we lag behind because we know we used to know something.
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