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Category Archives: J-Pop

New Daoko: “Bang!”

Ambition is a hell of a thing, but certain artists just really need to chase it. Daoko built her reputation on mystery — she was a wise-beyond-her-years high school rapper who never showed her face and took Sotaisei Riron’s tone of a teenager scribbling personal poetry during a boring math class and applied it to hip hop. It’s a bit of a naive reading — for all of the shrouding, Daoko made her intentions known pretty quickly, I mean not many students are recording with m-flo — but ultimately makes for a great narrative, and at some point the story has to go in a new direction. Like Suiyouib No Campanella’s Komuai or, to a slightly different degree, Seiho, Daoko is the type of artist who seems ready for the spotlight, and in a position where momentum is on her side. If that’s what you want, you have to go for it and push yourself…even if the risks are great.

As long as we can all agree that the goofy retro cheese of “ShibuyaK” never happened (though, hey, it did pretty well online at least), Daoko’s “Bang!” feels like that fist big leap. It’s pop in every single way, from a clappy opening bringing to mind “Happy” and a video that finds any of the artsy stuff tossed aside in favor of her dancing with Hot Cops. Regardless of how many lamp shades Sia puts over her head, pop is about directness and “Bang!” is as pointed as it gets, from the sweetly-sung pre-chorus bit to the moment when the hook hits in all its repetitive wonder. The guarded Daoko of a few years ago, and even the version of her that was dipping her toes into full-on pop has now plunged in. And it works — this is a good pop song, one very different from older material…but we all have to graduate high school at some point, and Daoko is choosing to go for big. And she’s come up with catchy number that recasts her hushed voice in just the right light and, alongside half of the pop duo Oresama, has written a tight-but-twist-filled number (those string plucks!) that’s a solid first step towards the spotlight. Listen above.

New Especia: Mirage

The internet, as I’m sure you don’t need me telling you, warps our worldview pretty fiercely. If you follow a bunch of people on a social media site who share a common interest, it probably looks like any news about said interest is a big deal that practically stops time. In reality, most people are more interested in talking about Poland beating the Swiss in soccer. That’s probably how Especia fit into my online life…it was announced late last week the group, which went on a break following this year’s Carta and saw a significant line-up change in that period too, and my feed went bonkers over the next two days, capped off with the release of a new four-song album called Mirage. Maybe this isn’t a big all-together-now moment, but it certainly warrants at least bullet points to some corners of the J-pop-leaning universe:

– Especia are now a trio, with returning members Haruka Tominaga and Erika Mori joined by new member Mia Nascimento (Especia Va Bien with the full breakdown). A lot of the charming aesthetic points return, as do some of the ones that make you tug your collar a bit (see new press photo in that preceding link). Probably unnecessary, considering the artwork for Mirage, entered around some Tatooine-ish world and, like, speeder bikes, captures the same vibe without any of the potential pitfalls.

– Speaking of Mirage…it’s pretty solid! Especia opt for the more mid-temp material they’ve dabbled in, and which appeared across Carta, and even though nothing on Mirage nails the big, attention-grabbing pop that tends to manifest itself on the group’s releases in at least some form, this short set feels more like a reaffirming “we are back!” than anything else. One full of great moments, from the breezy flute on opener “Savior” to, well, most of highlight “Helix,” which features an intriguing garbled bridge. As a return to the spotlight, it is a solid play to the fanbase, save for the unexpected switch up to English.

– So if the music isn’t any major departure for the group…thank goodness…how about the group’s image? Ultimately, the live video of their return performance says more about that than anything else…gone are the throwback jerseys, and instead they sport black dresses while performing in front of Hi-Fi City (who, we can assume, probably worked on Mirage). Some have speculated they are moving away from idol music with this return, which…well, let’s see what happens next (it’s tempting to see them playing in front of a live band like that and think maybe they want in on the whole “city pop revival” narrative…except they’ve already done just that, so….), and the English on the release is an interesting twist, albeit one that’s hard to peg.

– But overall, glad to see them back, and still mostly doing what Especia did best. Listen above.

FAKY, Yup’in And FEMM Come Together To Form FAMM’IN, Release “Circle,” Break My Mind

Let’s just lay this one out in text first — combining Avex artists FAKY, Yup’in and FEMM into one special unit should result in something totally average given the pedigree of the individual acts involved. FAKY and Yup’in have had their moments, but overall neither artist is the sort you get worked up about in any capacity. FEMM…well, FEMM are a bit more divisive, as plenty of people love the mannequin-themed duo’s jarring electro-pop. I’m not one of them though, and feel like most of their approach works better as cynical .GIF files than music. So put the three together and…I don’t know, a try-hard number about being young and having a good time and bleating EDM synths?

So what the fuck is this??? The group going by FAMM’IN shared their song “Circle” yesterday, and it is a nearly seven-minute-long meditation full of Auto-tune gurgles and traditional Japanese instrumentation. It has something resembling a drop, if a drop was imagined after hours of misogi. The lyrics zoom away from usual topics in favor of koan-like pondering about the circular nature of life. This from a group featuring a duo who once compared themselves to Shane Victorino.

Part of me feels drawn in by the simple existence of this — the sprawling nature of a mega-label like Avex allows for all sorts of acts who disrupt the notion that J-pop is a sterile, unchanging thing (see you Oomori Seiko, what’s up BiS). But this…look, using words like “weird” in relation to J-pop always smells suspicious, but a label taking three acts who primarily exist to make high-energy pop and letting them create a slow-motion cut slamming trap up against gagaku samples is…unexpected. The press release calls this “Japanese trap,” and that is underselling it fiercely.

I initially was worried this seems so cool because of how unexpected it is — do I like this because of the music, or because Avex found the least expected way to utilize these three? Well, this has been on loop all morning, and I’m just floored by everything going on here — how this manages to link traditional sounds with modern styles without sounding like a total cheese pit, and how it does that while still sound like mist in the air. This is as great a shock as you can ask for. Listen above.

New Perfume: “Flash”

Sharing a “short version” of anything feels like cheating…why not just wait a week until the full video hits YouTube…but we’ve bent the rules for Perfume before so why deviate from that path. “Flash” is the first non-single to emerge in the run-up to Cosmic Explorer, out worldwide in about two weeks, and finds the group bridging the gap between the electro-pop they’ve long been associated with and global EDM tendencies (this has something resembling a build-drop). It isn’t the festival-sized drama of “Pick Me Up,” but rather a more elegant mid point between electronic styles, one that Yasutaka Nakata has been trying to bridge…with various levels of success…since 2012. Listen above.

Future Shock: Daichi Miura’s “Cry & Fight”

Now, I’m not a brave enough soul to say the mainstream J-pop scene has undergone a paradigm shift over the last two years — save for the ongoing band boom, the Johnny’s projects and middle-of-the-road idol groups of the country continue to soak up way too much space for music that is an afterthought — but it has gotten a lot more interesting. Thanks fragmentation of audiences! A lot of wonky artists who would be indie-sideshows just a few years ago — seriously, 2010/2011/2012 was just all idols all the time — are starting to make inroads onto national TV and major labels. Again, plenty of garbage still gets way too much attention, but a lot of risks are also starting to get in the limelight (and let’s raise the stakes…J-pop is now at least as interesting as Western pop…I mean, come on).

Part of the intrigue is playing out at the production level. This isn’t entirely new — during the idol-boom days, the best thing to come about was more left-field producers getting a chance to make music for groups (because they were a cheap option for labels) and sort of Trojan Horse their way in to mainstream consciousness. Plenty of great artists got shine because of this…but the flaw in the system was the idol-boom relied on hardcore pockets of fans. They were reaching new ears…but weren’t expanding beyond the die hard types. Tofubeats made plenty of great songs for Lyrical School, but he’s only taken off…on his own. But now producers with ideas you wouldn’t expect from a J-pop major label are starting to get more visible work — Broken Haze helped service Sky-Hi’s “Limo,” and now Seiho is handling production for Daichi Miura’s “Cry & Fight.”

I know only the most basic info about Daichi Miura…he’s from Okinawa, he’s an artist on the rise and his previous singles run from pretty solid to fake-ass Hoshino Gen YouTube-core. I’m writing about “Cry & Fight” because Seiho handles the production. And overall, I like what’s happening here. The opening piano bits are straight out of the David Guetta playbook and not so sure about the trap breakdowns, but I also am not naive enough to know Miura is a pop star on the rise, and he can’t be singing over “Wet Asphalt.” And plenty of Seiho comes through — the nervy tempo changes, the way the hook bends in to itself, the song’s inability to sit still at any point, THAT WATER DROP SOUND. And those tight bass contortions in the final leg, I would not have imagined an Avex song sounding like the inside of Ochiai Soup in 2013.

J-pop in 2016 is…interesting, in every sense of the word. Listen above.