Give Me the New World
490 · 17 June 04
Tsukiko Amano: Tenryuu
Out of a possibly misguided feeling that I ought to have a better context in which to understand some of my favorite Japanese artists, I've mail-ordered Japanese music DVDs by a few of them. I always operate from the starting assumption that I am able to accurately judge a performer's relationship to the world just by listening to them, but obviously this isn't so reliably true even within my own culture, and it's much more unlikely in a foreign one. I've been surprised several times in the course of these videos, and always in the same direction. Maybe the pillows manage to play down to their simplicity, and maybe I knew what kind of slow-motion diva reveries Ayumi Hamasaki was going to be spun in, but on stage and on camera, almost everybody else is one or two quanta glitzier than I expected from the music.
On one level, this is fairly predictable. Japanese pop singers know American pop culture much better than I know theirs, so some of the to-them ordinary aspects of their styles will seem exotic to me, and rarely the reverse. What startles me, though, is that what I think I know of their relative context, from their music, doesn't appear to help me either. People who seem to be distancing themselves from Ayu in their music may as well have borrowed her costumes for their videos. My bafflement reaches a critical point in the middle of a concert video by snarly guitar-rock goddess Tsukiko Amano, when a synchronized dance team of young women dressed in inanely provocative mock-business-suit costumes gallop onto the stage and, instead of clubbing them ruthlessly into the crowd with her guitar, Tsukiko smiles beneficently and steps into her rehearsed position in their midst.
So maybe I just don't know much. My Japanese language studies are on hold for the moment, as I juggle other shorter-term priorities in my life, and I'm mostly just keeping up with new music from the Japanese artists I already know I like. Then again, at the moment I'm largely just keeping up with new music from artists I already know I like in English, too. This method tends towards expansion by its nature, anyway, and produces more than enough music to fill my listening time even if it didn't. Tsukiko Amano's first two albums both came out in 2002, and she's released two more already in 2004.
The third one, which came out in January, is the new studio album. Tenryuu means "heaven's dragon", and the kanji for ten/"heaven" is the same one that, pronounced as "ama", begins Tsukiko's surname. The track list takes further advantage of the expressive compactness of pictograms by titling each song with a single character. There ends the language lesson. I have translated bits of Tsukiko's songs for my own curiosity, and looked up other people's translations of a few more, and that's not why I listen.
I listen because at their most enraged and corrosive, Tsukiko Amano's songs grip me like Sinéad O'Connor's eyes rolling back into her head every other minute of "The Lion and the Cobra", Alanis whipping into "You Oughta Know", Maria McKee grinding through Life Is Sweet, Cyndi Lauper throttling "Money Changes Everything" or Fiona tearing her own throat out at the end of "Victoria Cross". I listen because there is a universal dimension to rock catharsis that has everything to do with how words are sung and nothing to do with what they are. I listen because these songs strengthen my belief in human power, and because they make me flail. Tsukiko could be Peruvian or Estonian or Beninese, and there's probably another great singer like her in each of those countries and every other one. It's only a small planet until you come in out of orbit and start looking at it from close up. But you pick your points however you pick them, and start drawing your maps.
A pealing lead-guitar line opens the album. A drum loop chatters, real drums and cymbals crash, synthesizers whir and saw and dive above rhythm-guitar churn, and Tsukiko slides into the choppy, swoopingly epic "Tsurugi" ("Sword"). The arrangement pushes from Alanis and Glen Ballard's judicious drive towards the beginnings of Queensrÿche's ornate intricacy, but a carefully controlled pace, springy bass lines and Tsukiko's bounding melody edge it into effusive hyper-guitar-pop instead of metal. "Same" ("Shark"), the first advance single, jump-cuts to a buzzing, Curve-esque synth groove, with pensive kick-drum echoes and staticky guitar noise, before twitching into quick, spare verses, and then frantic double-time sprint-punk-opera choruses like Yoko Ono choreographed by Toni Basil. But then "Koi" ("Love") slams off in another direction entirely, jittery techno percussion eventually giving way to swoony backing-vocal sighs, organ swells, piano strut and grand handclap accents, for a disarmingly chirpy impression of what Garbage might sound like as the Shangri-Las.
A piano plays a lullaby riff, a harp waves gently, and "Hone" ("Bone", but remember that "Hone" is pronounced "HOE-nay") undulates into a sweetly poised mid-tempo ballad that veers a little too close, for my tastes, to becoming its own anticipatory muzak version, particularly with the "It's a beautiful day" chorus lines in English. "Ryuu" (the "Dragon" of the title, not that there aren't a dozen other kanji pronounced that same way) starts to rebuild, lonely piano runs eventually invoking guitar roar again for the mutedly stormy chorus. But the album doesn't really return to form until "Ten" ("Heaven"). A syncopated mini-cymbal line bides time until sinuous violin and elegant quasi-classical guitar can measure each other. After a couple minutes some berserk guitar takes over, and the violin bites down and follows it. The lyrics are all just spoken, distantly, and then scattered into the music like caltrops. The combination is kind of centerless, a five-minute interlude that feels like sketches for the interstices of something much longer, but maybe heaven is like that. By "Chou" ("Butterfly"), the other advance single, Tsukiko is back into her usual brash form, orchestral verses exploding into pounding rock choruses with a lascivious guitar squall.
"Tsuki" ("Moon", the first of the two kanji that make up "Tsukiko") is another experiment, a slow pop meditation built on a loping drum loop, but I glide through it on the way to the perky synth-string-pop trifle "Niji" ("Rainbow"!), with another great rattly, vaguely punk-derived chorus, like an Avril Lavigne who learned her Alanis Morissette and Missing Persons lessons better, or possibly a Mandy Moore who learned them at all. The slow waltz "Wadachi" ("Wheel Track") subsists on rustling background noises and breathy sonar pings, but "Karatachi" ("Trifoliate Orange", and from the fact that there's a whole character just for this species of tree you can begin to see what a project it is to learn Japanese from scratch in adulthood) is a finale in full bloom, with a gnashing guitar hook oddly reminiscent of Survivor's "Eye of the Tiger", smoothly humming bass rumbles, rock-solid kick/snare/cymbal stomps, and Tsukiko breathing deeply before plunging herself into each line.
In my most petulantly arrogant moments, I genuinely wish people would stick to the artistic career-trajectories I picked out for them after thirty seconds of the first song of theirs I ever heard. Tsukiko Amano should be making Kristeen-Young-via-Mecca-Normal albums by now, abrasive and unsettling records that offer little or no production texture to mitigate the effects of her guitar and voice, records that make PJ Harvey sound like Cat Power and Courtney Love sound like Britney Spears (more, I mean, than they already do). And maybe that will still happen, but it isn't happening now. These songs are mostly getting bigger and softer, in fact, rather than the reverse. In the audio mix for the concert DVD, Tsukiko's own guitar is barely audible when it's the only instrument, and completely undetectable when the rest of the band is playing. But if she's becoming a conductor more than a soloist, and a rock singer in a more circumspect and majestic mode than the art-punk I once imagined, then it isn't my role to complain. I've already admitted I don't understand what this means, so I'd be foolish to pretend to know that it's not better.
Tsukiko Amano: Winona Riders
Tsukiko's fourth album, returning to the titling gimmick of her debut (Sharon Stones, although that one could almost pass for an Irish reference, not that an Irish reference would be any less inexplicable) is a b-sides collection. Monetarily, this is a great transatlantic mercy, as she put out entirely too many Japan-only singles with just one b-side on each, and as best I can tell all of them are collected here, including the two from Tenryuu. The liner notes even reprise the singles' often-intriguing cover art.
Whether you need ten more songs from an artist who has made three studio albums in three years, already, is a different question. The bad (albeit unsurprising) news is that as a record, these ten songs don't even begin to hold together. Bondlessness is a rationale for collection, not a theme for display. I would proffer no argument but completism for the clacky jazz-funk throwaway "Kame" ("Turtle"), the declamatory "Kisa" ("Elephant" or "Phenomenon", somebody who likes it can find out which), or the wearying acoustic lurch "Boggy!", and only in certain moods do I want to hear the frilly, A*Teens-ish "Pleasure".
That leaves six really excellent songs, though, most of them excellent examples of why I think rawer modes are Tsukiko's strength. "G.B." clomps and grinds, Tsukiko's vocals diving through roller-coaster turns above the murky accompaniment. "Suteroido" ("Steroid"? it's phonetic, whatever it is) is quick and uncluttered, just drums and bass and guitar building to a magnificent chorus in which processor-clipped Tsukiko backing choirs glitter icily around her arching lead. "Supaida" ("Spider", phonetic again) stretches out a little, Tsukiko fluttering in and out of falsetto. "Misairu" ("Missile", I think) could easily be Tsukiko's theme song, urgent and bristling and unrestrained. "Ningen" ("Mermaid") is nearly as definitive, cowbells and organs swept up in the roaring guitar and snapping drums. And "Kyodai Kemono" ("Enormous Beast") is rousing and symphonic, a Sharon Stones-era track that nicely foreshadows Tenryuu, so maybe there's actually a bigger plan behind all of this, after all.
Nanase Aikawa: 7 seven
My gripping fascination with Tsukiko Amano's first two albums has kind of distracted me from Nanase Aikawa, my first favorite Japanese rock-oriented pop singer. Nanase has no art pretensions at all. She's a Japanese Pat Benatar still young enough to benefit from modern technology, maybe, or what Tori Amos might have been if she'd decided that the problem with YKTR was too much piano and not enough chain mail, or Lene Lovich crossed with Lita Ford. Nanase's songs are kinetic and unsubtle, and she bounces through them with serviceable technique and abundant enthusiasm. At their most crazed, they verge on Feel So Bad frenzy; at their midpoint they could be Enya tentatively discovering goth, and at their slowest, save one serene and graceful piano-and-violin piece here, they are unmistakably power ballads. Most of the time they just blast away, modern in instrumentation but unfashionable, at least in American terms, in cheerful exuberance.
My single favorite Nanase Aikawa song remains, perhaps once and always, "SEVEN SEAS", but several new songs here challenge strongly for second place. "Daria -She Knows Love-" is the closest in structure, arpeggiators twinkling and drums circling in anticipation until the redemptive chorus steers everything skyward. Clanging pianos, groaning bass and yearning guitar feedback buoy "Ai no Uta -Majientarein-" ("Love Song (Magenta Rain)"). "Hi o Tsukero Beibii" (something like "Grab the Flame, Baby!") is giddy and headlong, drums splattering and gangs of Nanases shouting the refrains, and I bet Cyndi Lauper and Too Much Joy could do it justice together, but not many others could. The crunchingly machined "NIGHT RAINBOW" is like a globe dance epic remixed for rock drama. And "Shock of Love", which sounded a little rushed and one-dimensional to me as a single a year ago, seems to have wormed its way deep into my brain in the interim, and now strikes me as uplifting and classic, particularly in the everybody-play-hard ensemble stabs that introduce the choruses and the demented guitar spazz-outs at the ends of them.
We should have a hundred singers like this in America, as we invented every element of this style, but somewhere along the line we got too self-conscious and forgot how much fun it was supposed to be. We fell into the delusion that infectious energy needs to be undercut by defiant ineptitude or concealed by elaborate irony, and that competence exists to enable either banality or disdain. And so we get the Donnas and Rasputina, and Britney and Radiohead, and I find myself staring across shining oceans.