Category Archives: J-Pop

New Especia: “Aviator”/”Boogie Aroma”

New Especia: “Aviator”/”Boogie Aroma”

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.

New Namie Amuro Featuring Hatsune Miku: “B Who I Want 2 B”

New Namie Amuro Featuring Hatsune Miku: “B Who I Want 2 B”

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!)

New Namie Amuro: “Golden Touch”

New Namie Amuro: “Golden Touch”

(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.

New Suiyoubi No Campanella: “Diablo”

New Suiyoubi No Campanella: “Diablo”

Rapper-ish electro-pop-kinda group Suiyoubi No Campanella seem like the sort of music group that should be poised for a big mainstream breakout (recently signing to a major label helping fuel that vision), as they take a growing music trend (silliness and a lack of interest in genre borders mixed with honest emotion…see Tofubeats and Kyary Pamyu Pamyu for two examples, one far more known than the other but still) and package it with an extremely camera-ready leading singer. But who knows what the ever-dwindling crowd of people buying music will take too, and instead let’s focus on the now. “Diablo” is the highlight from the trio’s recently released “first EP,” and like “Momotaro” before it, it zips from hip-hop to dance-leaning segments, loaded with at times silly lyrics but also a sweet chorus (and that piano). Watch the video above.

New Perfume: “Pick Me Up” And “Relax In The City”

New Perfume: “Pick Me Up” And “Relax In The City”

Assorted Thoughts

1. I ultimately think PC Music is pretty great — most of the music released under that banner has been fantastic pop, and in general I side with any artist/collective who appears to have a genuine interest in Japanese music and tries to push it into the West (A.G. Cook samples DJ Kaori CDs, for gods sakes). I was pretty geeked when the video for “Hey QT” emerged online, and basically was a mish-mash of techno-pop trio Perfume’s “Spring Of Life” and “1mm.” I feel pretty safe in saying PC Music’s admiration of Perfume comes from a heartfelt place, and the same “emotions turned digital but somehow more human than before” feel Perfume kick up appears in their best releases.\

Weirdly, though, the “Hey QT” video revealed the one element of PC Music I’m not huge on, which is the ironic/ironic? commentary on advertising. Not because I love ~brands~ or hate quirkiness, but because…like so many things that try to be subversive…reality tends to be way weirder. Considering that nearly every major J-Pop single exists as an advertising tie-in for something, the idea behind QT isn’t interesting because this has been the reality I’ve watched since 2009. And I’ve seen plenty of special groups spring into existence just to promote movies or Fanta or fucking Zima.

Maybe I just bristle at it, because some of the songs that mean the most to me personally and have brought me the most joy owe their existence to pushing cell phones, alcopop and recycling campaigns. And this has never stopped me from loving them.

2. “Pick Me Up,” Perfume’s 21st single, is a special collaboration with Isetan, a famous department store in Shinjuku. This is pretty clear in the video (above), which happens outside and inside the establishment, featuring plenty of clothes available at said place. The video itself is great in a lot of ways, but I’m just here to lay out the advertising tie in.

3. Oh, hey, the reason I’m dripping these thoughts out today…the other side of the single, “Relax In The City,” leaked today (listen here). It’s good, but isn’t as interesting to talk about as “Pick Me Up.” Producer Yasutaka Nakata has been sneakily getting good at these more relaxed tunes for Perfume (remember this not-so-hot try?), and “Relax In The City” glides along very nicely. The chorus, so sweet! That said, I think the first six or seven seconds, with that static-y intro, is my favorite part.

4. But “Pick Me Up,” dear goodness…I haven’t been really feeling Perfume’s new stuff post Level3, to the point where I kinda tricked myself into liking “Cling Cling” more than I really did. Whereas a bunch of Perfume fans online freaked out because it had been, like, six months since they announced a single, I was happy they were taking a break. “Maybe they’ll return to the glory days,” I wistfully thought.

Thankfully, they didn’t.

“Pick Me Up” is what Level3 tried to be. That album mostly recycled older ideas, except now imagined what they would look like now that Perfume’s live budget could afford a big laser machine. It is an album designed for Perfume’s (great) live show, but one that fails as something you just listen to outside of a few songs. It wanted to reshape Perfume into a group capable of performing at an EDM festival. “Pick Me Up” does to, but realizes they can’t just add vaguely Garrix-esque dollops onto their music and, boom, Ultra Miami. They have to push everything up.

Where did all this drama come from? Acoustic guitar? The members of the group pushing their voices this high? With no (obvious) digital manipulation? At its worst, EDM sounds like an energy drink, all fake and gross, but at its best there is nothing more human than the rush of emotions it conveys (a quality the best Perfume songs have also always had). Perfume has been eying something like this for a while, but “Pick Me Up” actually hits the mark — it is a huge pop song with outsized emotions and a matching sound. It exists because of a department store, but everyone involved transcends that, which has always been what Perfume (and Nakata) do so well.

5. I’m one of those puritans who thinks Perfume wouldn’t be Perfume without Nakata behind the boards (whereas, say, Kyary could still be Kyary without Nakata), but “Pick Me Up” is a good argument that they probably could do OK with solo side projects if they tried.