Turn On the Faraway Lights
482 · 22 April 04
For Supercar to replace Interpol and stellastarr* in critical neo-New-Wave favor, I believe we would only have to alter the universe in three relatively minor ways.
First, we would have to be a little less depressed. Or, if that doesn't count as "minor", we would have to at least fetishize existentialism a little less assiduously. We would need to let Joy Division and the Cure slip a little lower in the canon, and raise The Teardrop Explodes and Talk Talk a little higher. A little less ominous Chameleons/Smiths atmosphere, a little more Dolby/Numan leer. Less Radiohead paranoia, more Gay Dad enthusiasm. No upheaval or inversion, just a slight shift from gothic towards modern, from The Crow towards Spy Kids, from Sandman towards FLCL. Supercar songs rattle and zig-zag where Interpol and stellastarr* bite and whir, more awed than weary, more distracted than disaffected. They remember King Crimson better than the Velvet Underground, maybe, know more of Rupert Hine's credits than Butch Vig's, answer "Ryan Williams" faster than "Brian Warner". Their reveries in Ping Pong were made for them.
Second, we would need to be able to more instinctively appreciate the difference between style and affectation. Interpol and stellastarr* sound like New Wave bands. That is, they make new music that sounds like New Wave music sounded, new songs that remind us of the old new songs. They are New Wave in a way that we don't quite have half-quotation marks to express, New Wave by affiliation with a set of established (albeit vague) genre parameters to which "New Wave" refers. Supercar, on the other hand, are New Wave by original temperament, which is the critical distinction Enid was failing to make about her clothes in Ghost World. When New Wave was new, its New-ness was the crash of ambitious curiosity hitting unperfected technology, and where Interpol and stellastarr* reproduce the sound of that crash, Supercar actually revive the art of collision. Decades later, we still aren't quite out of new noises after all. "Free Hand" opens with a hypnotic, shimmering hybrid of violin tuning and running a wet finger around the rim of a wine glass, settling it into bongo-drum patter and surging bass groans, and later gnashing repeated-chord guitar and fluttery beepflutes. "Justice Black" has a lead-guitar noise like an air-raid siren played through a plastic kazoo. "Sunshine Fairyland" is like a Seventies flashback filmed in DayGlo PixelVision. "Wonder Word" wheezes tinnily. "BGM" threads space gamelans through synth-bass lines worthy of GBM. "Discord" has some of sampled-percussion history's most inspiredly faked cymbals. "Harmony" is a summer-porch song for days too hazy for "Steal My Sunshine", and "Recreation" is almost to Prefab Sprout, but "Golden Master Key" sounds like the Thompson Twins doing Michael Nyman. "The World Is Naked" could be Tricky after a vat of Ricola; "Siren" could be Interpol via Belle & Sebastian, or possibly vice versa. "Last Scene"'s piano notes have comet tails. "Time"'s have afterimages in plexiglas.
Third, we'd have to make a few small alterations to the social physics of global culture. Supercar are Japanese, and sometimes sing in their own language, despite providing English titles for all songs and bilingual liner notes that are as often Japanese translations of sung English as the reverse. Ping Pong is a magnificent, hopelessly endearing riot of a movie, second only to Gollum in special-effects mastery and maybe first in effects as means to storytelling. But gadgets and cartoons cross the Pacific to us, yet for the moment apparently people can't. So we get dubbed anime, like even the real voices of animated people are too foreign. We get a few old masters, but have to try to infer the kids from their cell phone accessories. We get food, but not pop. And we learn to say "thank you" from old Styx songs, and never know how much we would be grateful for.
GLAY: THE FRUSTRATED
So we're stuck with The Darkness, when we could have GLAY. Admittedly, bigger changes would be required to make this switch than Supercar for Interpol, but I still think it could be done.
In this case, the first change isn't so much a matter of levity as sincerity. The Darkness may insist they aren't parodists, and the people who claim to like them may really like them, but both sides are clearly hedging their bets. The only material difference between the Darkness and the Upper Crust is that the Darkness are hedging much larger bets. GLAY aren't hedging at all. The Darkness put on costumes; to GLAY they're just clothes. This is the difference between Glam and glamour. So instead of the Darkness's AC/DC-mashed-into-Queen burlesque, GLAY have arrived at a compromise between mid-U2/INXS urgency, effusive flair halfway from Queensrÿche to the Backstreet Boys, and arena scale on the order of Bon Jovi staged by Peter Gabriel.
The second change, though, is basically the same as with Supercar. The Darkness are trying to recreate old music. GLAY are recreating (possibly as a result of the same circumstances) a lost context in which music was once made, and then making it again. Listening to THE FRUSTRATED I feel, stronger than ever, that GLAY are what U2 might have turned into in a culture where the onsets of staggering fame, daunting self-importance and debilitating irony weren't all coincident. U2 got weird, GLAY just keep expanding. If THE FRUSTRATED isn't as coherent as Unity Roots & Family, Away, it's because GLAY are wracked by too many urges this time to constrain them all to one domain. So "HIGHCOMMUNICATIONS" spasms and shudders, vocal yearning over cracking drums and buzzing guitars. "THE FRUSTRATED" itself squalls and simmers like Jesus Jones, but then "ALL I WANT" slams into Randy-Rhoads-grade guitar bluster and shouty refrains. "BEAUTIFUL DREAMER", the advance single, is a galloping, string-buoyed pop anthem, and "BLAST" snaps like the Mighty Mighty Bosstones redressed by the wardrobe department from The Matrix. "Ano Natsu Kara Ichiban Tooi Basho" (which probably doesn't exactly mean "The Place Farthest From Summer", but I'm so pleased to have a guess without using the dictionary that I'll stick with it) is solidly mid-tempo and mid-energy arena rock, and "Mugen no déjà vu Kara" ("Because of Infinity's Déjà Vu"?) spirals down to unplugged lullaby. "Toki no Shizuku" ("Time Drops", like tear drops) swells into slow drama, but "Billionaire Champagne Miles Away" is a guitar strut begging for Steadicam shots of the players running backwards past the front row's outstretched hands. The quick, twitchy "coyote, colored darkness" is the closest thing here to a rococo Gackt thrash, but "BUGS IN MY HEAD" (sometimes the Japanese capitalization scheme seems perfect) is a blaring sprint through fundamentals. "Runaway Runaway" is sweet and sparking, as if all kids grew up knowing that the Alarm and Glass Tiger are variants on the same dreams. "STREET LIFE" is a measured power-ballad, pianos ringing, and "Nantoufuu" ("Southeast Wind") finishes the album with a jangly acoustic sing-along.
I don't know what it adds up to. If there's a unifying atmosphere or motif, I haven't felt it yet. So far this swirls around me like a cloud of songs, not an album. But it took me months to suddenly hear enthralling coherence in Unity Roots & Family, Away, so all my schedule for THE FRUSTRATED calls for now is hope and willingness. I hope this isn't the most I'm going to love this record, and I'm willing to keep playing it to find out. But that's already something. My hope didn't survive thirty seconds of The Darkness, and my willingness gave out shortly thereafter. That feels like what The Darkness want, one brief flash and a cloud of glitterdust settling where they passed. We already know where they're going, that's the draw. And maybe the Japanese know where GLAY is going, too, but I don't. The painful irony of our cultural myopia is that ignorance is so marvelously conducive to charming enigma. I could painstakingly translate Japanese magazine interviews with GLAY and find out if they're wise or moronic. Or I can listen to them play, and imagine my own answer.
T.M.Revolution: SEVENTH HEAVEN
Of course, suspension of disbelief is easier when you know you have a solid grasp of denial to back it up. I love my share of inane bands, and maybe some of your share (for which I apologize), and I don't have to read interviews with T.M.Revolution to know that they're one of them. Oddly, they're only the second J-Pop band for whom I've seen US releases (including a DVD, but not yet including this new album), and they wouldn't be my second choice for crossover potential, but neither would Puffy be my first.
TMR are going to need bigger tweaks to the universe than Supercar or GLAY. First, we're going to have to deal with some serious social gender issues, as Takanori Nishikawa takes exhibitionist androgyny to the level (and nasal structure) of Janet and Michael combined, including a cover photo that finds two of him seductively entwined. Second, we have to accept the aesthetic premise of manic exuberance on the order of Frankie Goes to Hollywood and Trashes the Entire Place in a Voguing Contest. Third, we have to be ready to dance.
I'm not sure, confronted out of context, that I would respond that well to a breathless inquiry into my readiness to dance, so I don't mean this as an irrefutable argument. I don't have an argument for TMR, I just have a vertiginous rush of vicarious endorphins. Two minutes into this album, I'm thinking that "I'm too sexy for my shirt" was squandered on the wrong song, and the problem with "Don't You Want Me" and "She Drives Me Crazy" was that they implicitly acknowledged that they might not be irresistible. TMR is approximately as relentless as a Chuck E. Cheese run by Daleks. By comparison, globe are 10,000 Maniacs and GLAY are Matchbox 20. This is techno for sugarhigh five-year-olds and blacklight DDR addicts dripping body paint. Anybody who faults The Darkness for superficiality and yet loves TMR is not to be trusted to choose ring tones, much less level critical judgments. So level your own, I'm busy proving that you can centrifuge a smile. The fast songs here blend together like cluster orgasms, everything coming faster than everything else, exploding in wave pulses. Most of the songs are fast, but even the slower ones approach redemption like nobody has exactly explained sin to them, and so instead of slow-dance lullabyes we get windswept ballads for being flown around on dragonback, at the end of which we're unceremoniously dumped back into a video-game.
And if the goal of the game is a Perfect Technopop Song, TMR win it on "Engraved On The Moon". It's 5:21 long, and I have just informed my iTunes jukebox rules that this is obviously an ideal length, despite admittedly odd implications for a bonus-track live version of Queensrÿche's "Queen of the Reich" and Yes's "Tempus Fugit". Snarling guitar samples goad the verses and buoy the choruses, synth basses throb like teddy bears snoring, keyboards twitter like birds welcoming us to the air, drums loop like dawn's quickened heartbeat, Takanori alternately skitters and soars, and whole countries could be consumed in preparation for Air Bell contests to mime the three-note chime-riff. Do As Infinity's "Touku Made", Nanase Aikawa's "SEVEN SEAS" and Gackt's "Kimi ga Oikaketa Yume" all echo in its exultations, and at the end, when I'm convinced our Western version would have faded out, terrified to push its luck, this one has the inspiration to let the last couplet hang in effusive a cappella, so we can't pretend TMR doesn't know. There's a difference between a seduction and a promise, and I'm crushed for all the hemispheres that won't get to hear the look in their eyes that explains it.
the pillows: PENALTY LIFE
If I had to pick one Japanese band that actually might be ready for a Western crossover, without any universe rewiring, my safest bet would probably be the eminently straightforward garage-band trio the pillows. They resemble the Hives/Stripes/Strokes/Vines axis (and the Beatles/Kinks/Knack/Romantics/Smithereens axis, for that matter) enough to not have to explain their role, they have cult exposure to build on from their FLCL soundtrack appearances, and they sing in English at least as intelligibly to American audiences as plenty of British bands before them. I know reasons why Supercar and GLAY and TMR probably can't be successful in the current American musical climate, but I honestly don't see any reasons why the pillows couldn't be.
There must be some, though, because I hate the Hives/Stripes/Strokes/Vines, and I love the pillows. I wish I could claim that they too are atavisms instead of nostalgists, but I'm not sure that's a meaningful assertion when the style parameters are this basic. Loud guitars, loud drums, enough bass to scare the neighbors, and a singer who can't really sing. It's been the template for hundreds of earnest bands for decades, and thousands of not-so-earnest ones. But it comes out a little different in every set of hands and voices, and a timbre or a tendency will reach or reject you. FLCL only led me to a best-of, but I've long since gone back and bought everything in print. The old records blur together, and the new ones aren't much different either, but I'm reliably pleased to hear the songs on whichever one I randomly trigger, and aware enough of PENALTY LIFE's individuality to keep overriding the randomizer and picking it over its predecessors. "Dead Stock Paradise" is a charging moped anthem, like "Highway Star" for empty bike lanes. "Lonesome Diamond" roars warmly enough to render the FLCL theme "Ride on shooting star" redundant for all but the tie-in. "Freebee Honey" is what I wished the whole new Undertones record sounded like. "TERMINAL HEAVEN'S ROCK" swoops and howls, "The sun that will not rise" hums and sighs. "PHANTOM PAIN" sounds like Primus in an accommodating mood, and "I know you" is like a McRackins song I don't get tired of after hearing twice. "Moon Marguerite" might be a first single, rumbling and just a little restrained. "Super Trampoline School Kid" is a novelty throwaway, but "Mole Town Prisoner" is the best Too Much Joy song TMJ never played. The album probably should have ended there, as the downbeat "The scar whispers, nobody is in paradise" is over-counter-balanced by the jerky actual unlisted finale, but maybe for the domestic reissue we'll trade them both for a reprise of "Ride on shooting star" that we can mention on a cover-sticker.
Or maybe, on second thought, we won't bother. The world isn't that big, after all, and maybe shrinking it any further or faster would only be hastening its homogenization. American xenophobia is galling, but it might also be the most effective restraint on our oblivious cultural imperialism. We are powerful enough to consume most things we don't fear, so maybe fear is our kindest collective gift. We huddle here within our shores, and the oceans sparkle with escape.