Perfume

The trio from Hiroshima, consisting of Aa-chan, Kashiyuka and Nocchi are a significant name in the dramatic change of the musical landscape of ‘idol-pop’. They sell themselves with their clear-cut dance moves, heavily processed android vocals, a wonderful array of electronic synth and drum palettes, and a fascination towards futuristic imagery.

It would be fitting to start off with one of their early hits ‘Polyrhythm’, the song that first attracted major attention. It is electro-sound at its full potential: extensive use of vocoder engineering, an array of dazzling synthetic textures and a heart-pounding beat.

Although a rhythmically ‘user-friendly’ version (one with the bridge taken out) exists, for me the polyrhythmic bridge is the highlight of the track. Admittedly, it does drag on slightly, but it’s a novel way to create a buzz of excitement to the latter stage of the song.

My all-time favourite Perfume tune is ‘Laser Beam’. There is a slightly mysterious quality to the melody in the verse, but I feel it creates some tension towards the voltage-driven chorus. Musically the track is immersed in glitch, laser-like synths, an aggressive bass line and a foot-tapping four-on-the-floor beat. The trio unleashes a meticulously drawn choreography (partly influenced by the ball pitch of Japanese baseball player Ichiro), executed in pristine condition.

‘Spring of Life’ is a musical jab of aggressive techno beats and punishing sequences of steps and moves. The bubbly, energetic radiation is driven by the rhythmically pulsating distorted synths, rich vocal layers and a gear-shifting chorus accented by the opening lyric ‘spring of life!’

Their latest anthem ‘Pick Me Up’ sees a transition towards a more Euro-centric groove, perhaps in their efforts to sustain their growing international recognition. A surprising touch of Avicii is present when the acoustic guitar makes a prominent appearance in the first verse. The pre-chorus is successful in providing a gradual crescendo into the explosive, catchy chorus. The vocals are less processed than their earlier musical output, which adds an honest, human touch to the song. Despite the fact that elements of realism are slowly crawling into Perfume’s artistry (in the sense that their actual voices play a productive role rather than being sonically manipulated), they sustain their futuristic spirit with a music video set around a strange, unearthly environment.

Perfume‘s producer Yasutaka Nakata is clever in the way he packs complex musical and visual ideas into a package that is easy to consume within the mainstream. Perhaps Perfume is a testament to Nakata’s ability to refashion kitsch idol pop from a mechanised machine-line system into an exciting melting pot of artistic innovation.

Other Listening:

  • One Room Disco
  • 1mm
  • VOICE
  • Magic of Love
  • Chocolate Disco

© Isaku Takahashi

Lullatone

Something a little different.

Lullatone, a duo based in Nagoya find their creative identity between the innovative sonic labyrinth of musique concrete, and diverse popular styles from bossa nova to ambient and minimalist music, marked by a quirky, childlike character. They emphasise their uniqueness as they refer to their musical style as ‘pajama pop’.

I will talk about three of their albums (two of which have a seasonal theme), each album conveying its own distinctive musical, sonic flavour.

The first seasonal album that grabbed my attention is the EP While Winter Whispers. It opens the listener to an imaginary visual reflection of the serenity and tranquil nature of winter. The musical ‘story’ opens with a delicate tune, ‘A Little Song About Snowdrops’, evolving from a lullaby-like melody played by the music box. ‘All the Optimisim of Early January’ lifts the musical journey to new heights. It sprouts an injection of sonic energy with a marching quality to it. ‘Tiny Glaciers’ slowly lightens the mood with delicate musical inflections that are evocative of an image of water drops falling from melting glaciers. The journey concludes with ‘Falling Asleep with a Book on Your Chest’, with gentle ripples of chords on the electric piano and a tiptoeing glockenspiel melody drawing a vivid picture of the final snowflakes to grace the land.

Lullatone explore the sounds of summer in their EP Summer Songs. Stylistically, perhaps it is not as innovative as other albums, pronounced in the significant influences of early rock ‘n’ roll, surf and Hawaiian music. Yet there are glimpses of bustling sonic activity. The songs in this EP are all carefully designed to musically paint various pictures of summer: ‘Cannonball Splash’ is a classic tropical surf wave soundtrack, ‘Driving Home with a Towel on the Seat’ displays some clever sonic textures in the form of a lo-fi rattling drone that mimics the cry of a cicada, and ‘Still Feeling the Waves When You Go to Bed’ provides a serene conclusion, with a sweet whistling melody accompanied by the natural sounds of the ocean on a late evening orange sunset.

In Computer Recital, the Nagoya duo skilfully crafts an album out of the foundation of sound, the sound wave. While one would imagine such an approach would provoke an abstract, machine-driven piece, they form a body of sonic inventions that somehow manages to carry a touch of human intimacy. Lullatone balances distorted noise samples with clean, warm melodies and harmonies in songs like ‘Tracing’ and ‘Resound’, in a way that it feels like a reflection of a daydream: a distant imaginary world mingling with the mechanised sounds of everyday life.

Overall, Lullatone delivers a brand of purity, joy and warmth. To be able to appreciate Lullatone you need two prerequisites: to be able to listen to the fine details the duo puts in their creations, and the ability to draw out your inner childhood.

Other Listening:

  • The Sounds of Spring EP
  • Soundtracks for Everyday Adventures
  • Little Songs About Raindrops

© Isaku Takahashi

フレデリック – Frederic

The context in which I discovered this band is similar to the way I first heard Sakanaction: a holiday to Japan; hours spent roaming around Tower Records in Shibuya; new musical discovery.

Frederic are a 4-piece band, including a pair of twins, Koji and Kenji Mihara. Their music combines catchy, unapologetic pop/indie rock gestures with eccentric, but equally addictive vocals, traditional rock band set-up weaved with subtle electronic layers, and perhaps most striking, music videos centered around two woodenly expressionless women.

‘オドループ’ (‘ODDLOOP’) is one of their more up-tempo, rhythmically pulsating tracks (compared to their earlier songs). The title merges ‘odoru’ (to dance) and loop, but it could also simply be ‘odd’ and ‘loop’, perhaps reflective of their unusual approach to their videos. The music video stays faithful to the context of the song: repetitive samples of clips in a loop or reversed, rhythmically sync to the beat and the persistent appearance of the poker-faced women.

From a more political angle, the occasional listener interprets this song as a subtle remark on the issue concerning late-night restrictions on dance clubs in Japan:

Chorus

‘踊ってない夜を知らない、踊ってない夜が気に入らない’

odottenai yoru wo shiranai, odottenai yoru ga kini iranai’

‘don’t know a night without dancing, don’t like a night without dancing’

Regardless of such a connotation, ‘ODDLOOP’ can easily raise the voltage level in any audience at a live show.

Their most recent hit ‘オワラセナイト’ (‘OWARASE NIGHT’) sustains the emphasis on danceable beats. The title means ‘to finish what you are doing’. Up until the point they released ‘ODDLOOP’ and ‘OWARASE NIGHT, I had the impression that Kenji Mihara had a slightly slack, laid-back approach to his vocal timbre and expression. However, this hit transcends the early judgements I had about his manner, as he seems to be more ardent and passionate. After all, it is a songs that promotes strong will and determination, reflected in their message:

“In order to see the morning, you have to finish what you are doing right now. Otherwise you cannot move forward. When you want to start something you have to OWARASE NIGHT!”

And it’s fair to say, it did the trick. It was a good motivation song for me in the sense that I had a dissertation to ‘OWARASE NIGHT’.

Other Listening:

  • SPAM生活 (‘SPAM Seikatsu’)
  • 人魚のはなし (‘Ningyo no Hanashi’)

© Isaku Takahashi

サカナクション – Sakanaction

So, my first post. I want to start this blog by talking about an artist that changed my whole perspective on J-Pop.

When I was in my teens, I had this trivial image that J-Pop was a musical bubble over-populated by ‘aidoru’ noted mainly by their imposing, handsome looks (referring to Johnny and Associates) or sugarcoated cute personalities (early example being Morning Musume, nowadays the countless number of girl groups that happen to have 48 members in it). To an extent this assumption may still exist. Then one evening, during a holiday to Japan in summer 2009, I discovered Sakanaction on a Japanese music channel.

Their name derives from a fusion of the words sakana (‘fish’) and action. Formed in Sapporo, Sakanaction exhibits a unique sound world; their collage of electronic, new wave, indie/alternative rock makes them such an exciting band to listen to.

One of my favourite songs from their creative output is ‘Mellow’ (from their self-titled album in 2013). It was clever to put this track after a lively, beat-driven tune (which happened to be ‘僕と花’ or ‘Boku to Hana’), as the opening “mellow” synth and subdued drumbeat, reminiscent of a heartbeat, felt refreshing to listen to. The echoing, distant vocals by Ichiro Yamaguchi, the gradual textural crescendo towards the chorus and the regular abrupt ‘cut’ from the main synth pad made the track all the more unsettling, but pleasant at the same time. (Unfortunately there are no youtube links to the track…)

While other tracks like ‘Years’, characterised by metric variation between the verses and chorus, and the stereo angularity of the piano chards in the middle section also show off their imaginative spark, on the other hand they can produce energetic, anthemic hits.

Aoi’ carefully balances the chilling, ghostly choir with the vitality from the strumming guitar, busy drum line and looping synth phrase, all topped with a simple, uplifting vocal melody form Yamaguchi. Similarly in ‘Identity’ (the song I discovered during my holiday), the opening rhythmically pulsating bongo-drumming sets the lively tone of the song, the peak being Yamaguchi’s bright vocals hitting the top note in the chorus.

For me, there is no song by Sakanaction that can be deemed unsuccessful. They can be energetic and dynamic, appealing to the broader mainstream culture of Japan, but at the same time be eccentric and unusual, maintaining their special artistic integrity.

Other Listening:

  • 夜の踊り子 ‘Yoru no Odoriko
  • Endless
  • ルーキー ‘Rookie
  • 僕と花 ‘Boku to Hana

© Isaku Takahashi

About Me

Welcome! My name is Isaku Takahashi and I’m a recent graduate from Goldsmiths, University of London, studying Music. I am Japanese, but spent most of my life in the UK, including my entire education in London. I play the piano and violin, done a couple of gigs with a jazz/soul band, and I have perfect pitch.

And now, I’ve decided to start a blog. This blog is an online ‘personal writing cloud’ for reviews, ideas, or just simply posts on the thing I’m interested in – J-Pop of course!

So what is my motor for starting this online writing space?

For the past three years, I have had to tolerate a copious amount of essays, projects and coffee (which was perhaps for the better, as it made me more mentally resilient). Once I wrote some stuff, it would be assessed and marked. Dreading the idea that I would get a bad mark for these assignments, it was actually favourable for the most part, which was honestly a pleasant surprise. Before starting university, writing essays was a completely alien process for me simply because I hardly did any for a continuous period of time. Looking back now, I would never have imagined my academic life would culminate in an 8000 word final year research essay on J-Pop. It’s a skill that I have developed and now become passionate about. Since getting the occasional compliments from lecturers, I figured it would be a waste not to continue writing about music in some shape or form.

Also, I guess spending most of my life in the UK meant that I didn’t experience the musical exposure that a regular person born and raised in Japan would usually endure, which perhaps made me more curious, interested in learning and encountering the vibrant music scene in Japan. I like how ‘J-Pop’ embraces, and celebrates diversity, reflected in the wide spectrum of styles and sonic palettes that splurges out from that wonderful, exotic and strange country!

At the moment I don’t really have a structure on how I approach every post (e.g. Do I review an artist, or just one song, album, video? etc.) However, I think it would be better not to have one because it may give this blog a bit more variety. Although the word length may vary from one to another, it’s not really my concern at the moment. I’d rather let my mind talk/write naturally.

The most important thing I aim to get out from this blog is a sense of personal pleasure, and the feeling that I’m learning from this process. Even if my writing is not the most stimulating or engaging to everyone, I hope this blog will give just an open, general insight into Japanese music and culture. To add to this, Goldsmiths really encouraged me to look at things from a different perspective, so I aim to take this principle in my writing practice as I will try to look towards new, undiscovered musicians from Japan (that’s one way to learn from this process) I.T.

© Isaku Takahashi