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The Lorien Lights
Hitomi Yaida: Air/Cook/Sky
Japanese pop is not an album art-form. In part this is a logistical result of the industry standard-practice of releasing most of the singles before the album that contains them, so that a knowledgeable listener must inevitably hear the album as a short-term retrospective. But many of the Japanese pop artists whose songs I like best make albums that I'm pretty sure a completely ignorant listener would readily identify as structurally incoherent. This may well still be the singles industry's fault. I don't actually follow the Japanese charts, but if the release behavior of the artists I care about is a product of their past chart fortunes, it may be true that the charts reward style-hopping, or that artists think they do, or maybe that the music-buying public en masse has so little enduring loyalty to artists or styles that the charts indirectly reward style-hopping only as a means to currency.
But the albums usually contain all the singles, both more cheaply and more compactly, so in my ongoing campaign to simplify my music consumption I have been shifting to an album appreciation of singles bands. But since I'm already an album person by nature, this poses a recurring lesson in slow learning. As albums, some of these things are fairly hopeless. Hitomi Yaida actually made a couple albums with real album discipline, notably her second, Candlize. But i/flancy, her third, tried to wander in many directions at once, and Air/Cook/Sky, the fourth, is now lost in them. Parts dissolve towards atmosphere: some spindly, Celtic-derived folk-pop; an epic, pinging-piano ballad; one that's slow, building and DAI-shrill; a finale with elegantly traditional twinges and traces of shima uta quaver. Parts stomp towards rock: one crunching squarely into Nanase Aikawa territory; one double-step punk-pop thrash; one Garbage-like experiment that maybe manages to reverse-co-opt the sound of a Western band affecting cheesy Easternisms and turn it generous and arching. But then: a wheezily braying organ strut, some swoony mid-tempo lilt, a little sputtery r&b-derived quasi-funk, and one baffling song on which hip-hoppy drum loops give way to grating sing-song cheeriness fueled by both effusive Alarm-grade harmonica bridges and shards of abandoned sample twitter. The writing and production credits are the same throughout, leaving only the even/odd alternation between the album's two mixing engineers to explain why I feel like the ambience changes at every track break. By the end I feel edgy and tired, like I've been listening to commercials when I wanted to be reading a book.
And yet, the moment I start taking the album back apart into songs, my reactions start flipping one by one. "Mienai hikari" ("Invisible Light"), with Peter O'Toole and Sharon Shannon helping on another demonstration of the geographically unlikely synergy between Japanese and Irish folk-pop argots, makes me happy about humanity's cross-cultural potential in exactly the way that those old Coke ads wanted me to. Hitomi's tendrilly voice and her unapologetically sketchy English diction keep the ballad "Chain" out of cloyingness. I love the way the hi-hats hiss through the roaringly Aikawa-ish "Slide show". "Mama to Tedei", which might be a breathless paean to teddy bears, could fit in right along the Sturmer songs on the next Puffy record. And although I don't pretend to understand whether I'm supposed to be uncomfortable about the circularly borrowed keening in "Are you ready?boy", if I forget about that (and overlook some even odder geography) I'm left with an intriguing impression of how it might sound to cross the Corrs with Alanis Morissette. And so whether the other songs that remind me of Do As Infinity or Chitose Hajime do so fondly or redundantly, I still love more than half of the songs on this album I don't like listening to all the way through. I guess I no longer exactly trust Yaiko the way Candlize made me think I might, which might be half me and half her. I thought I heard her promising to make bracing, extraordinary real music instead of just cheerful pop, but I tend to overestimate. And pop is only "just", for that matter, when I'm uncooperatively refusing to let it be, which is way more than half about me. When I remember to, I love pop songs. At least, I love the pop songs I love, especially big pop songs with tiny weird individualities. I love that songs can make me feel good even when I can't identify much that they mean. I love when they add up to albums, and the albums into careers, but if some of them are only jukebox moments, then it's a jukebox pop age, and I have the technology.
The emphatically capitalized GATES OF HEAVEN is Do As Infinity's fifth studio album in four years, and seventh album overall. The sixth album overall was a concert recording of worryingly dubious vocal tuning, and I wasn't particularly fond of the advance singles for this, so I arrive with carefully reduced expectations. At their most energetic, DAI have made two of the songs that are responsible for the extent of my dedication to Japanese pop music. At their most erratic, they've made a lot of songs I have no affection for at all. Tomiko Van is not a strong singer, which hurts her most when she runs out of power at the ends of phrases and has to sacrifice either timbre or pitch, and I still think she often sounds like she doesn't actually speak Japanese. The band do not have a particularly firm sense of unique musical style, so when their songs don't thrill me in some universal way, there's not much else for me to grasp at. Here they flirt with some jazzy retro impulses, and if I came across those songs on a compilation I'd skip them without even checking the credits. If I wanted stylistically anonymous J-pop chart-filler, I'd play my Ayu singles more often. From DAI I want something that lives up to the thrash of "SUMMER DAYS" or the yearning pomp of "Toku Made". I'm not saying it's fair of me to want that, but I want it anyway.
I nearly get it. I nearly get it exactly, in fact. GATES OF HEAVEN not only has two songs I throw myself into with blissful abandon, it has one each in precisely the two molds I requested. The thrashy pop sprint here is "Nihon wa seiten nari" (something like "Clear Japanese Skies", although I'm rearranging terms in search of idiom). Guitars squall, cymbals crash, handclaps pop. The music rushes Tomiko enough that it doesn't make much difference how well she can sing, and I'm left to somersault through the stop-starts and stretch out over the bridges. The combination sounds to me like the Go-Go's with better studio training, and while I realize this runs against the prevailing garage fondness for bands that sound like the Knack with shittier amplifiers and no crushes to channel, I'd rather hear professionals who can still fake glee than bitter cynics calculating the half-life of their cool.
The huge, glittery anthem, this time, is called "Thanksgiving Day". Sequencer arpeggios sparkle, drum machines spin, guitars snarl like FAO Schwarz panthers, and the band clatters and swoops through a celebration on the order of a globe trance epic redone with guitars, ABBA outfits and impatience.
Kana: Ningenteki Ningen
But what you ask for influences not only what you get, but what you think you're getting. If you listen to an album hoping to hear reprises of two specific songs you already know, you're very likely to hear new songs with either large flaws or small ones, no matter what else was really there. Sometimes it takes shock to restore your real hearing.
I came across Kana on some fan site devoted to theatrical Visual Kei bands, where she was listed as one of the almost exclusively male style's few women. I'm in favor of stylistic gender equity on principle, and I've enjoyed stray women in other male Japanese fields (notably Nanase Aikawa and Tsukiko Amano in rock and Feel So Bad in metal), so I expected great drama. I expected an even more effeminate-sounding Gackt.
What the reference I found did not reveal is that Kana cannot sing. She bleats her way through the seven tracks of this mercifully brief album with all the aplomb of a deaf high-school-talent-show set-up. In the US, we put our pretty girls into the protective/exploitative care of production teams who can disguise their technical inadequacies and convince them to wear less clothing. Kana's production glosses over nothing. She whines and creaks and keens and sounds like neither she nor we can possibly be having much fun. This is what I imagine it would sound like if we had a tape of an eight-year-old Diamanda Galás quietly and resentfully singing along to The Sound of Music while wearing extremely uncomfortable headphones. This is one of those records I can't play for anybody. The first three or four times through I suspected it was one of those records I can't listen to myself.
Except I eventually noticed how many listens it was taking to be sure that I couldn't listen to it. I recognize how unpleasant these noises unquestionably are, but that doesn't mean I don't want to hear them. They are awful, but they are also vividly present, and arrestingly unmistakable, and that isn't an insane trade-off. Kana may not be able to sing, but she wrote and produced these seven wounded things herself, and although her "songwriting" is not much better than her singing, in conventional technical terms, as a sound composer she's a minor demented genius. "Hadaka" plays placidly tolling piano against glassy synth-string pads, only to careen abruptly into a circus-calliope aside. "Honou" is brutal robot-metal, pummeling drums and yowling guitars bashing against each other amidst distracted orchestra stabs and random caterwauling noise. "Uchuufuku" ("Spacesuit"!) is a spasming pop song worthy of Atom and His Package. "Kigou" sounds like a staticky radio transmission from a planet where aliens got three-quarters of the way through reconstructing the Clash's "Guns of Brixton" and then got distracted by modem noises and Berlin's keyboard sounds. The percussive retro-synth collage "Haato" ("Heart") is closer to Jean Michel Jarre's Zoolook than anything else I can think of since, "Doseikoku" ("Earth Star Country"?) does a rather uncanny Propaganda impression, and "Tsuki no kanmuri" ("Moon's Crown") bustles into Art of Noise density. And over it all Kana squeals unsteadily, like an infinitely deflating balloon. If the record lasted any longer, I might be forced to throw myself out of my own moving car to escape it, but for twenty-seven minutes, I'm transfixed by the oblivious self-possession it implies. I can't imagine anybody sensible advising her to go through with this, and I'm ecstatic that she found a way not to hear them. Art and technique go together so often that it's easy to forget how intrinsically separable they are. This is one of those hopeless records that makes me want to hear the unique chaos inside ten million passing heads so I don't miss the one that sounds like infant magic.
Garnet Crow: Crystallize
But then sometimes, too, technique matters. Garnet Crow are the most pleasant-sounding band I know, and maybe that sounds as much like a curse as anything I said about Kana, and I can't entirely explain how I can listen to these two polar opposites back to back without my neck unscrewing. Crystallize, Garnet Crow's third album, is only an incremental refinement of their first two, and I collect their records with the helpless inadequacy of trying to quantify the difference between the best sunset you've seen yet and the one that was the best before that. Their songs are always exactly the same, except when a new one somehow coalesces fractionally more enchantment than any of the older ones happened to. This album will be on my best-of-2003 list, and yet I have essentially nothing to say about it. I wrote about two of these songs when they were singles, and the album is six times longer and at least twice as great, but the virtues and limitations are fantastically unchanged. Garnet Crow are still and again Enya as a preternaturally mature twenty-something studio band making soundtrack pop with r&b equipment. If they sang in English and undercut Enya's rates, they'd run her out of the soundtrack business in a month, as they have all her atmosphere and ten-times better drum grooves. Their songs are the missing moment in The Lord of the Rings when Galadriel hits the lights and Lorien erupts in slow-motional mirrorball-rave rapture. I know of no band on Earth today who are better at the thing they do best. Whether this awesome serenity is a thing you need, I couldn't guess, any more than I know whether you need to be wrenched out of your expectations or handed back into them. I can't know what you need, that isn't my job, tonight or any night. I can listen to records, and then listen to myself listening to records. And if I don't hear anything helpful or important to you, well, that's why you have, if you are lucky, your own perfect records you don't have anything new to say about to carry you into the next most perfect morning.
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