Ed’s Picks: Top 5 Japanese Albums of May 2020

Tokyo Weekender's music writer Ed Cunningham selects his favorite albums released by Japanese music artists

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Whether in search for a summer anthem or teasing towards a September release (traditionally ripe for the “student market”), music released on the brink of summer is often some of the year’s most exciting.

Worth mentioning for May, in addition to those below, are Help Ever Hurt Never, Fujii Kaze’s great case for cheesy pop balladry, Mouse on the Keys’ Arche, another impressive jazz-fusion math rock EP, and dreamy indietronica record Kodomono Odoriko, a collaboration between Macaroom and Chiku Toshiaki – though I’ll admit that its androgynous vocals probably won’t appeal to everyone.

Mei Ehara, ‘Ampersands’

(Kakubarhythm)

Mei Ehara is a master of the art of patient, measured music. Not everything has to blast, experiment and unnerve its way to the realm of what is interesting and Ampersands, Ehara’s second work under her birth name (after 2017’s Sway), is satisfying because it is layered and lush but also steady and controlled.

Each component is subject to Ehara’s soft power. Every piece of drumming, strum of rhythm guitar, light guitar lick and sprightly horn; the arrangement of every layer and the timings of its appearance. Ehara has moved on from the plainer folk style of her previous albums but Ampersands, in the calculatedness and structure of its compositions, retains the inflections of a great folk songwriter.

Ampersands is a jazz-pop album that follows closely on the heels of smooth, easy-listening styles of city pop but it also contains bits of dub, jam and jazz rock. All of those genres, arranged in such watertight fashion, contribute to an atmosphere that may well be timeless. Ehara manages to occupy a space between modern production and nostalgic simplicity, achieved through arrangements that are deceptively intricate. Tranquil, artfully weighted and effortlessly multifaceted, Ampersand is masterful, restrained pop music.

Gesu no Kiwami Otome, ‘Streaming, CD, Record’

(Warner)

So goes the recipe for progressive pop: take the conventions of contemporary pop music, rearrange them, add bits that shouldn’t be there (or, at the very least, bits that aren’t usually there) and fit them all together. Finally, reel it in – this isn’t avant-pop, experimental pop nor art pop – it should be apt for high-brow sniffing but still sound somewhat like the plain old pop stuff you’ve been trying to get away from all along.

Sound difficult? That’s because it is. Artists don’t tend to strive towards progressive pop so much as happen upon it. Gesu no Kiwami Otome, however, haven’t just thrived at making progressive pop music but are, by all means, tremendously successful at it. Not only are they more progressive than most but they’re popular. They dominate the charts and sell out huge live shows – singer and lead songwriter Enon Kawatani even occasionally gets caught up in the odd celebrity scandal.

Their 2016 album Ryōseibai cleverly played off pop and alt rock against jazz rock and math rock. Their latest, Streaming. CD. Record, plays an even more complex game, mixing funktronica in amongst all those aforementioned styles. Its rhythms are all over the place, its electronics subtle and futuristic. Hona Ikoka’s tactile drumming is clearly influenced by the deft power of jazz and gospel drummers, while keyboards and strings are arranged through careful, tightly woven songwriting.

Streaming. CD. Record is, at times, overwhelmingly complex. But it’s also an album full of pop hits. Gesu no Kiwami Otome never shy from singalong choruses, hooky melodies, nor electronic beats even as they embrace more ambitious instruments and songwriting. Streaming. CD. Record is an excellent example of progressive pop’s delicate balancing act of radicalism and accessibility and, as for Gesu no Kiwami Otome, it is their most successful rendition of that act so far.

Masaki Batoh, ‘Smile Jesus Loves You’

(Drag City)

Masaki Batoh has been touted as a visionary of psychedelic music, his solo work – as well as in bands Ghost and The Silence – has established his experimental, broadly- influenced folk sound as distinctly of its own world. Smile Jesus Loves You is another example of his compelling abstrusity, a work that supposedly “decries the existential opacity of our latter-day faith” but is also so ambiguous that it feels just as likely to be political as it is not.

In keeping with Batoh’s predilection for traditions far flung from his Japanese roots, he interpolates Jimi Hendrix and translates Argentine folk musician Atahualpa Yupanqui. If the meanings behind his lyrics weren’t uncertain enough, they are further shrouded by his singing in Japanese, English, Spanish and Latin.

The nature of his instrumentals are equally broad. Batoh’s principal banjo is supported by woodwind, piano, lap steel and an extensive host of other instruments. He is joined by members of both Ghost and The Silence, as well as free drummer Hiroyuki Usui, for a recording that is entirely analogue – that is, without the use digital equipment to mix or master it.

All of these elements combine into a repetitive style of folk music that is entrancing but delicate. Batoh masterfully shifts between moods as his tracks gently expand, often over a lengthy runtime. It’s never cumbersome or clumsy. It is also all directed by Batoh: his band are superb but they are chiefly dictated by his banjo, which is entrancing enough on its own. Smile Jesus Loves You truly is the work of a psychedelic visionary, an inimitable work from a consummate musician.

Makoto Kawabata, Hiroshi Higashi, Richard Pinhas, Manongo Mujica & Juan Luis Pereira, ‘Alturas’ | Takuro Okada & Duenn, ‘Urban Planning’

(Buh) | (Newhere)

There is always a strong temptation to clutter up every list of great new Japanese music releases with ambient and experimental records. To refrain from such indulgence, instead here are brief outlines of two that particularly impressed me in May. Alturas and Urban Planning, both collaborative pieces, starkly contrast each other in the scale and spectacle of their sounds.

Alturas is a collaboration between Makoto Kawabata and Hiroshi Higashi – both of Acid Mothers Temple – with Richard Pinhas, Manongo Mujica and Juan Luis Pereira. So the story goes, it was improvised during a festival in Lima, Peru in 2017. The product of Japanese (Kawabata, Higashi), French (Pinhas) and Peruvian (Mujica, Pereira) talent, its pitch alone makes for particularly alluring listening. But Alturas is far more than its quirky Andean setting. It glitters over gentle drone with slight influences of psychedelic rock and Andean folk music, an enormous, panning work and a fascinating meeting of musical minds and cultures.

Urban Planning is lighter, compiled of several shorter, vignette-style pieces rarely much more than a minute in length. Psychedelic and indie pop artist Takuro Okada combines with Duenn, an experimental musician whose work has included forays into ambient, industrial and noise music. A concept attempting to take influence from “the sound of the city,” Urban Planning’s tracks intend to embody particular aspects of urban life. Even if one doesn’t quite grasp that theme, the short-form style and frequent, simple gear-shifts throughout Urban Planning give it an immediacy and accessibility that one doesn’t usually find in ambient works.

Yasuyuki Horigome, ‘Good Vibrations 2’

(Columbia)

Five tracks, five genres, five different sets of collaborators, Good Vibrations 2 sees Yasuyuki Horigome estranged from his stylish, pop rocker past. This EP, the second so far in Horigome’s Good Vibrations series, appears to show-off an artist unafraid to experiment, even several decades into his career.

Without delving too much into the specifics, the tunes here bounce from breezy R&B with hip hop artist STUTS to spacy ballad pop with Tendre. Machina and Little Tempo respectively accompany Horigome on subsequent progressive electronica and dub tracks, the EP finishing with more comfortable soft rock.

All too often projects like these can come across gimmicky; the lead artist not so much collaborating with other artists so much as trying their luck at someone else’s sound. Although I won’t say that Good Vibrations 2 is gimmick-free, it’s free of that gimmick. Impressively, Horigome doesn’t just work with these musicians but actively pushes back, pressing them into an environment where the end product sounds somewhat equally influenced.

Not every collaboration on Horigome’s Good Vibrations 2 will be to everyone’s taste, but that shouldn’t necessarily be the EP’s main takeaway. It demonstrates Horigome’s willingness to try new sounds and work with emerging talent and, in the best possible way, it leaves one wondering exactly what kind of musician Horigome now is, and in what direction he will head next.

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