No stranger to remixing for J-pop acts, England’s bo en remixed Niigata trio Negicco’s song “Let’s Meet At The Festival.” The original version is a solid bit of pop — better than the leak-backing group’s newest songs, but not touching the material on this year’s Rice & Snow, one of the favorites for 2015’s finest idol-pop collections — but as he does so well, bo en dissects it and ties it back up in all sorts of new shapes. This runs from quiet passages to hyperactive ones to stretches featuring a lot of cheering. Listen above.
Sakanaction are in promotion mode, and off the heels of the video for “Years,” they’ve gone and released another video off their forthcoming B-sides and remixes collection. It’s for “Slow Motion,” which was a b-side for the (still transcendent, still tear-evoking) “Rookie.” The video is the real gem — throwback TV show motifs, full of goofy costumes, yes please! — as the song is both 1. very much of the Documentaly period, a funky number building up to an emotional-release of a chorus, and 2. not nearly as good as the songs that actually made the album. In particular, this reminds me of “Monochrome Tokyo,” but sandpapered down significantly, lacking the about-to-burst element that made Documentaly so special. Though the breakdown on this is pretty intense. Basically, it would have felt a bit of a weak redundancy on Documentaly, and works best as a b-side…which is how it worked out. Great video though, watch above.
Before I write anything else, I should mention…I really liked Especia’s Primera mini-album from earlier this year. As someone who still listens to Gusto a lot and feels the same joy from it as I did in December, Primera pretty much delivered on everything the group has done well — glistening City Pop revival stuffed with saxophones and funk. Save for two songs (the eight-minute opener, the awkward rap skit), it’s one of the better idol pop releases of the year.
Yet…it still somehow felt like a letdown? The aforementioned eight-minute intro, acting as a single, set the group’s major-label adventure off to a rocky start, and that was before the hyper awkward rap (that somehow got censored on the CD version?). Coupled with a video that embraced all the eye-rolling elements of vaporwave — oooooo Arabic, how weird! — and what felt like sort of a shift towards something more idol-ish, where all the interesting wrinkles of Gusto ironed out. It probably says more about my “fandom” for the group — Especia are probably the only idol group of the current decade I’ve actively rooted for to do well, because of how good their music and image has been — but everything they did seemed to be moving away from every element that had made them stand out a year earlier.
A big reason why the double whammy of “Aviator” and “Boogie Aroma” sounds so immediately good to my ears is…actually because of my eyes. The songs themselves are really good in the way most Especia songs mining Bubble Era Japan are — both numbers are catchy pop numbers loaded with neon-tinted synths and sweet, sweet sax (“Boogie Aroma,” for the record, especially stands out — maybe because it is a little more reserved, which makes the chorus pop all the more, or just the way they sing “feel so good,” but it sticks around just a little more than the perfectly fine “Aviator”). Yet I’m flinging myself back on the bandwagon for all the reasons idol music fucked up the Japanese music industry…because the emphasis moved away from the actual music in favor of non-music stuff. The songs are great — and let’s take a minute to note that certain music magazines and music stores are pushing something called “new City Pop,” but that none of the bands associated with it (some of whom are very good and just the victims of marketing!) actually come close to what actually constitutes City Pop like Especia does — but I’m really charmed by the video(s?).
Please print this out and stick it in my face next time I roll my eyes at your favorite idols.
Would I have been more forgiving of that dumb eight-minute single if the video had been Especia dancing around with a fake deodorant? Or backed by visuals trying to sell me a made-up boom box? I’m really happy they are back to imitating the elements of vaporwave imagery that made for an interesting tension — part of their charm was how it was them playing around with the micro-genre’s obsession with Japan, but as actual Japanese people, resulting in a weird take on the aesthetic that feels off in its own orbit. Oh, and the music still sounds really good so that’s a plus. Watch above.
Namie Amuro’s embrace of EDM has been on the rise for the last few years, and it seemed like it was finally paying dividends — she down-low released one of the better Zedd-produced songs, and her new album _genic features an immediate pop jam designed to be blasted out of cars. That full-length comes out today, and with it the arrival of what was probably the most anticipated track on it, “B Who I Want 2 B.” That one generated a bit of excitement because of the person producing the music, SOPHIE, who has gotten a lot of attention for songs such as “Bipp” and his connection to PC Music*. How would the British producer — who was once doing something with Kyary Pamyu Pamyu, but ehhhhh that vanished — handle working with Amuro?
The end result is way more unpredictable than expected, but not because of SOPHIE. His production work is fizzy and Euro-poppy enough without being to overwhelming — it stands out in the world of mainstream J-pop (very welcome!), but it critically makes room for the singers. Which, yeah, there is the twist…Vocaloid avatar Hatsune Miku joins Namie Amuro on this song, which turns out to be a big celebration of independence, of Amuro and Miku not needing any of “those boys in Tokyo town.” That falls right in Amuro’s wheelhouse, and is always a welcome attitude in J-pop.
Miku’s tuning here comes courtesy of producer Mitchie M, who focuses on making the singing-synthesizer sound as human as possible. He does a good-enough job here though, because what makes this song so dizzying is that, despite in theory being a duet between the two, it ends up sounding like Amuro morphing into Miku, and vice-versa. The vocals are just so liquid (Miku sounds a bit more digital, but not by much) as to make this both extremely catchy and slightly unnerving (which, is SOPHIE and PC Music at their best). This sounds bonkers, and seems like someone really finding a truly great way to use Vocaloid, an extremely intriguing instrument most artists lazily have embraced as just a voice, just a way to make rock songs about welsh onions without having to interact with other people. Few people have gotten experimental with Vocaloid, but here it merges with Amuro, creating a really lovely singularity.
Listen above before it inevitably gets taken down.
(*SOPHIE probably should be working overtime to make a little distance with them at the moment, though!)
(First off, the “interactive” element of this video is hilarious, but also sort of genius, like Google releasing Google Glass a couple years back and now settling on some cardboard specs. Put your finger here, and you can pretend it squirts mustard! Also, a furry relationship sub-story.)
Namie Amuro’s switch from Japanese to Japanese/English singing three albums ago has been weird, because of how it seems like she’s not willing to go all the way with it. When she first made the change, she told the media it wasn’t part of a foreign push which…is kinda strange, as that could only hurt her in Japan. She’s Namie Amuro, she ushered in the era of big ol’ R&B-pop artists! Stranger still, the songs on these albums have veered mighty closely to what’s trendy in the West — she has Zedd producing tracks, for goodness sakes. On one hand, explicitly trying to crossover tends to only end poorly for Asian-pop artists (CL pending), but at the same time Amuro’s refusal to go all the way with this sound has resulted in two hit-or-miss albums (here’s a review of the last one).
Her newest, genic, comes out next month and…maybe…just maybe…Amuro is really diving into this? The trailer for it featured another Zedd song, a track from SOPHIE (!) and a general shift towards all-out radio-ready pop (give or take an “Anything“). It isn’t her big American gamble, but it sounds way more focused, and way more fun.
“Golden Touch” is an immediate highlight and the sort of pop song that in theory is dead set on capturing “song of the summer” status, even though that’s not really a thing in Japan. It’s a follow-the-bouncing-ball (thanks video) electro-pop number, simple because it knows that chorus is really all it needs. This is grade-A, solid pop, which isn’t to dismiss it as pulling this off isn’t easy. It sounds ready to be blasted out of cars and shitty laptop speakers and those speakers lining the streets in Shibuya. Listen above.