While the outside world has ground to a halt but, Japanese artists continue to release new tunes. For some kind of thrill, escape, comfort or, for some, to simply provide something to do, now might be a perfect time to get subsumed in new music. This month’s selection is skewed towards the engrossing, reassuring or escapist, in addition to the usual standout releases.
Supplementing those mentioned below, worth a shout-out too are Mitsume, who released three great tracks this month. Ayano Kaneko’s “Ranman” and “Hoshi Uranai to Asa” are also typically solid pop rock tracks with her usual overload of melody and impassioned vocal performances; and deep house duo Wakon’s “Tokyo Is Dying”, an intense, solemn, wholly instrumental nostalgia trip.
(Rallye Label / Space Shower Networks Inc)
Few names in Japanese alternative R&B are as renowned as Tendre and few – if any – do what he does quite so well. Centered around vintage horns, his latest single, “Life,” is instantly a cushion of warmth and relief. What follows is exactly the kind of the crisp, sophisticated style that he’s known for, an immaculately produced and inescapably romantic pop song.
There’s a reason Tendre’s music is often considered part alternative R&B, part sophisti-pop (a jazz- and soul-influenced, polished pop style popular in the ‘80s): “Life” swoons with its all-consuming, bleeding horns but every detail of it feels expertly assembled. Despite those horns changing-up multiple times, the tidy timing of the drum phases and synthesized hand-claps, the seamless, smooth bass play and Tendre’s soulful singing all bind the track. “Life” is freeing and romantic, a tasteful and perfectly-assembled number from a musician whose reputation is deservedly growing by the minute.
Penguin Rush, ‘Turntable’
From the opening moments of “Turntable,” it’s the rhythm that grabs you. Not only because the drumming beats at an odd, stuttered pace but because the piano plays in a percussive manner of its own and, apparently, to a slightly different beat. The bass synth works off the rhythm improbably too, the different elements of “Turntable” feeling like they’re gently pushing and pulling their listener between them.
The ability to deconstruct a pop song and then rearrange it according to different conventions of rhythm is a sure mark of talented musicianship. Nagoya-based four-piece Penguin Rush, however, do even more than that. All the way through “Turntable” they are unpredictable, changing-up in ways that defy pop norms. That opening cacophony moves into tightly wrapped, paced choruses, stripping-back bridges and eventually solos. And, all the while, the song has a strong, clear identity that keeps it from becoming a hot mess of pop experimentation. “Turntable” is technically brilliant and a music geek’s dream, but it’s also a pop song – and one of the most skilful, distinctive tracks I’ve heard this month.
Czecho no Republic, ‘Hello New World’
(Murrfin Discs / Mini Muff Records)
You might try to resist the addictiveness of the familiar, well-worn chord progression of “Hello New World,” but you won’t succeed. Unblemished, slick, funky pop rock, Czecho no Republic’s latest single is rare not so much because it is catchy or simple but because it is, despite its cheesiness, incredibly difficult not to like.
Perhaps it’s a sign of these times, where we may be more frequently appeasing what we are familiar with rather than pushing beyond, that such pure, well-made pop rock can be relied upon. That isn’t, however, to diminish “Hello New World” as simply delivering in the right place at the right time. There is something glamorous about it, something boundless in the lyrics and steady, escalating instrumental. From its electronic patina to retro bassline, Chic-esque rhythm guitars to rising synths, it’s a huge track. “Hello New World” is a guilty pleasure without the guilt, comprehensively fulfilling one’s longing for uncomplicated, ear-worming pop.
Mei Ehara, ‘From Day to Night’
Since Fishmans redefined the scope of what could be achieved by combining indie and dream pop with dub back in the 1990s, relatively few have actually capitalized on those revelations. Dub pops up now and again but doesn’t feature so dominantly as it did with Fishmans, and has been largely left untouched by most popular or significant artists.
Perhaps it’s a testament to just how difficult it is to replicate that kind of genre fluidity that so few have tried it, but that hasn’t stopped Mei Ehara. Though Ehara’s previous work (especially under the moniker may.e) has mostly kept to indie folk and folk pop, her latest track “From Day Into Night” prominently features a dub-informed bassline, beat and guitar lick. It’s also far more than just an imitation of Fishmans; Ehara’s vocal delivery is adept at flowing from her lower to higher registers, making for particularly bright choruses. Putting Ehara’s folk songwriting prowess to good use and dipping into dream pop and indie rock, “From Day Into Night” is a remarkably successful dub crossover.
kZ, ‘Teenage Vibe’
(YENTOWN / bpmtokyo)
I’ll admit a rather blatant bias when it comes to revelling in “Teenage Vibe,” the final single (and concluding track) off of kZm’s recent release Distortion. It’s built around a sample of the introductory riff of a spiraling, manic track by British post-punk revival outfit Bloc Party (this one), a band that sound-tracked a significant portion of my early teens. Produced by Chaki Zulu, “Teenage Vibe” barely tweaks that riff, instead channeling it into a track that is, as on the tin, more about a vibe than anything else.
Drenched in thick autotune, neither kZm nor Tohji’s lyrics propose anything too testing. They brazenly rattle off one-liners about their youthful attitudes and carefree braggadocio – the usual pop rap stuff, made more interesting by celebratory throes to youth, freedom and Japan’s burgeoning hip hop culture. Combined with the sample and racing beat, “Teenage Vibe” is exactly that: a celebration of a youth and hip hop culture and a pacey, disorientating few minutes of blithe escapism.