Category Archives: Review

Fufillingy Stuffed: Tofubeats’ Lost Decade

Tofubeats doesn’t really bother introducing himself on Lost Decade, his first original album out on a major label. He’s been kicking around the Japanese music scene since 2006, grabbing attention for his indie-level beats and his work with mainstream J-Pop idol groups like Lyrical School (formerly sex-toy-sponsored Tengal6) and 9nine. Even though this will be his first collection of money available across the country in major music outlets, the Kobe producer realizes he has a large enough fanbase that he doesn’t have to make THAT big a splash. Rather, he approaches Lost Decade like a challenge – on a major label now, how much can he fit into one album? How many guests – from rappers he’s worked with for years to pop stars – can he cram onto one disc, presumably on his label’s dime? The answer to both is A LOT.

Lost Decade goes full stuffed-crust-deluxe pizza, holding nothing back over the course of it’s hour-plus playing time. The album is split between solo songs and ones with featured spots. Sonically, Tofubeats shuns a singular sound instead of celebrating all of his influences in flurries – he’s most indebted to hip-hop production, but he isn’t skimping on the rest of his record collection here. This is a packed album, one that can be a slog at a times and too dependent on its guests, but also has a knack for showing what Tofubeats can do himself…especially with major-label money behind him

The production across Lost Decade is strong, among the best work Tofubeats has recorded. Pinning his approach down isn’t a simple task…something something hip-hop…but over the course of this album he shows a few constants. He veers towards the synth heavy, and his percussion tends to sound built for a tropical party. He often speeds the music up to ridiculous levels, and often puts the vocals through similar manipulation (see the skippy “I Don’t Care,” one of the disc’s finest cuts). He does laid-back grooves well, exemplified by “All I Wanna Do,” but equally excels at the frantic on “Time Thieves.” His best song, though, remains the one that forces him to build – “Synthesizer,” originally out last year, staggers thanks to a slow rise that pays off by the end with a dizzying hook. It’s Tofubeats at his most dramatic.

But at least half of this album puts equal emphasis on his guests, who are more of a mixed bag. The big revelation on Lost Decade is that Tofubeats has a knack for creating pop music ideal for women to sing over. Seira Kariya provides the vocals for “So What!,” the album’s biggest pop moment, a retro-J-Pop-tinged number that’s all triumphant high kicks and guitar solos that somehow come off as totally natural. Tofubeats has been caught up in the J-Pop game for awhile now, but this sounds like a breakthrough for him on that front. Nanba Shiho swings by for the title track and provides pleasant enough singing over a piano-heavy track. The rappers, meanwhile, are a bit harder to place. Some, like cotton-mouthed ERA, are love-it-or-hate-it types, and his appearance on the otherwise nocturnal-pool-swim of a song is tough to read. Sky-Hi does an admirable job keeping up with the trap-turned-technicolor madness of “Fresh Salad,” but the rest of the rap “featuring” spots seem like dudes intruding on a quality beat I just want to hear alone.

Lost Decade is too crowded and, at times, too scattershot to reach the levels of a truly great album. Yet as a sandbox for one of the more talented young producers in Japan to play around in – and create some staggering sandcastles, like “Synthesizer,” “I Don’t Care” and “So What!,” – it’s a winner. It might not be the easiest album to sit through, but it’s packed with great moments. Listen to the whole thing below.

Dancing After 1 AM Compilation Featuring MIR, She Talks Silence, Extruders And More

Call And Response Record’s new compilation album Dancing After 1 AM didn’t need a hook to grab our attention. The 18-track album (full disclosure: released by our friend Ian Martin) features new songs from some of the best rock artists going in Japan. She Talks Silence contribute a shadowy guitar number, while The Mornings jerky “Fuji” wouldn’t have felt out of place on last year’s manic Save The Mornings. It also features the likes of POP-OFFICE, New House and Tacobonds working from their respective comfort zones. One of the best songs come from someone we’ve never written about before – Extruders hushed “Collapsing New Buildings” is fine-tuned minimalism, every near whisper and guitar stroke vital to the song’s atmosphere. Even Puffyshoes show up for one minute.

Dancing After 1 AM does have a hook though – the album features the first new song from new-wave duo MIR, who seemingly fell off the grid two years ago. They are back, at least for this Call And Response collection, with “Dance,” a song highlighting everything great about them in just over five minutes. The synths and beat lock into a groove, but MIR always keep something back. Makes sense since the singing on “Dance” never sounds particularly upbeat – the reserved bounce of the music matches up well with the nearly sighed vocals. Their ability to pull off sad dance music that still shuffles onward is something we’ve missed a lot, and they are just the most noteworthy inclusion on a compilation brimming with good artists.

Call And Response has listed several places you can get the compilation, check it out here.

Self-Promotion Plus: Reviewing tengal6 In The Japan Times

Not sure whether I’m proud or sorta embarrassed about this one…ahhhh who am I kidding, it’s both. As the review lays out, tengal6 is a pop group sponsored by a male-adult-toy company, which leads to all sorts of gross thoughts and inevitable sexual innuendo. Thing is, this isn’t some piss-take at the expense of tengal6 – their debut album City features a damn solid collection of producers (Fragment and tofubeats among more) and at times sounds really good. The rapping, courtesy of tengal6 themselves, isn’t up to snuff, but when they sing it’s all OK. A flawed but interesting album…with some very unfortunate corporate ties. Read it here.

Review: Canopies And Drapes’ And Putting Love Away

And Putting Love Away, the new EP from Tokyo’s Canopies And Drapes, takes its name from a line in Emily Dickinson’s poem “The Bustle In A House.” That work, a brief eight-line poem, deals with grieving following a death, ending with the lines “And putting Love away/We shall not want to use again/Until Eternity -.” Canopies And Drapes has the same thoughts on her mind, the three new tracks on this cassette focusing on lost love, and specifically where that feeling goes in the wake of the rupture. And Putting Love Away serves as a grim counterpart to last year’s Violet Lilly Rose Daisy, an EP which mostly focused on wants, of being consumed by the thought of another. Here’s what remains on the other side.

The subject matter isn’t the only aspect of Canopies And Drapes’ work that goes under a change on And Putting Love Away. Last year’s debut loaded up on dreamy synths and put an emphasis on CaD’s lyrics (especially lyric-book highlights “Live In The Snowglobe” and “Perfect Step”). Now, whether because she’s limited by the sonic capabilities of a cassette tape or just sonically restless, CaD’s is more concerned with minimalism and how her words sound. And Putting Love Away is a somewhat surprising change of pace for the young Tokyo artist, but one just as inviting and shady as her previous output.

Opener “The Door Into Summer” introduces us to CaD’s new approach, the twinkling overload of “Sleeping Under The Bed” replaced by bare-bones keyboard, some guitar and a nursery-rhyme-worthy beat. This stripped-down approach to songwriting places the emphasis on the vocals, and CaD’s voice rises to the challenge. The actual lyrics have become simpler than anything on Violet Lilly Rose Daisy – on “The Door,” she sings “how could I forget?/how could I help?/I still love you,” but the way those words are delivered fills them with emotional detail far more intriguing than anything a thesaurus could inspire. She draws out the first two lines, and then delivers the “I still love you” part so bluntly it sounds like she’s peaking out from a corner. Like her previous work, “The Door” boasts a strange unease, but this time it’s brought about by how minimal the song sounds. Something about its simplicity seems deceiving, so you play it again and again.

“Dead End” goes into similar eerie territory, chilly minimalism that leads way to cheesy – but still skin-crawling – horror-movie synths which bridge into the main part of the song, where CaD’s vocals practically run together to form a warm cloud of singing, the word themselves playing second fiddle to how everything blurs together. The other song, “Solaris,” chooses to be a little louder and its appeal lies in the sonic tension of the track, the claustrophobic instrumentation grinding against the sweetly sung lyrics (with a heck of a payoff too). The words are some of the least interesting CaD has penned to date, but again she’s learned how to deliver them in such a way so that a classic cliché like “there are millions of fish in the sea” becomes a sentence rich in loneliness and despair.

And Putting Love Away also comes with two remixes which don’t really add much following the excitement of the CaD songs. Moscow Club’s remix of “Solaris” is pretty typical remix fare (more electronics, basically) while Orland’s take of “Dead End” is less a remix and more of a sales pitch for Orland. If you like talk boxes and talking about how wacky the 80s were, here you go. If you like music that respects emotion, well………..

And really, that’s what is most impressive about And Putting Love Away and CaD’s musical output thus far – she’s constantly finding new ways of expressing complicated feelings, stuff way beyond “I love you” and “you don’t love me.” Last year she proved she could do that with short-story-like attention to detail, and on this release she shows she can ring the same feeling from just her sounds. Buy from here.

A Little Glance Back: Reviewing Make Believe Melodies’ Favorite Music Of 2010 About Two Years Later

One of my biggest concerns about the online music community is the unflinching push forward. Plenty have said it before me, but the advent of music blogs, Twitter and other platforms that emphasize the all-valuable “firsties” have turned music listening into a never-ending dash. Everyday, blogs from all corners of the world celebrate new tracks from artists both known and unknown. The next day – whole new cast of characters, a whole new list of songs one needs to hear if they want to stay up with the pack. We, as listeners, aren’t taking the time to really think about the music in front of us – in the same way the recent HBO show Girls let many down because the characters didn’t “click” with some viewers (this opinion is all over the place, Google it), music listening has become an activity hurt by lowered attention spans.

I’ve thought about this a lot recently, because I haven’t been keeping up with new non-Japanese music. A combination of a new job and lack of Internet means I haven’t heard anything from Death Grips or Peaking Lights or whatever else I should be listening to according to various online sources. Rather, I’ve been thinking about the past, and all the great music I’ve listened over the last five years. And surprisingly enough – it feels great to ignore the new and revisit the songs once hoisted up by blogs but now turned into relics lining “best of” lists nobody revisits that often.

So, with the past on my mind…and no Music Station to serve as the end-of-week feature…I’m going to do a little bit of looking back, specifically at the songs and albums this blog called “favorites” in 2010 (our first year-end list-o-mania). It’s not that much of look back – not even two years! – but in the digital age, that actually does feel like an eternity. Let’s go!

She Talks Silence Noise And Novels – Lets start with the big one, and I’m happy to say opinions on this one haven’t changed – Noise And Novels remains the best Japanese album I’ve heard since starting Make Believe Melodies, one I still wish people outside of Japan would have stumbled across and given a listen. Listening back to this one in 2012 hasn’t changed the sense of urban isolation running through Noise And Novels that seemed evident the first go through. More impressively, STS sounded sorta ahead of the curve – at it’s lonely center, Noise And Novels is an indie-pop album, but not a walking stereotype (which, as much as I dig it, is sorta how a lot of current Japanese indie-pop bands come across). STS summoned the best parts of Black Tambourine…and somehow predicted Frankie Rose, whose Interstellar traverses a lot of the same paths STS did…and made a simple yet strange album truly deserving of the now-exhausted adjective “Lynchian.”

Halfby The Island Of Curiosity – Nearly everything else this dude has released after The Island has been a wet willie aimed squarely at his listeners, meant to be goofy and funny but ultimately just uncomfortable. Now, though, for the big reveal – in 2010, The Island was the only Halfby album I had heard, his back catalog completely alien to me. Now I’ve mostly caught up and…I don’t know how Halfby managed to put together an album as fun and warm as The Island considering he spent most of his career parodying music. That’s harsh, but seriously those old Halfby albums blow. If everyone one has one truly great idea in them, here is Halfby’s.

Kimonos Kimonos – In my year end blurb for Kimonos, I promised an actual review of the duo’s album in the near future. That never happened for whatever reason, and it was probably for the best as otherwise I would have needed to also comb through that to explain why this record would fall the furthest down the list if I redid it. It’s not a bad album – and I stand by the singles being amazing, especially “Soundtrack To Murder,” with its borrowed-from-Deerhoof drummer and all – but when I sit down and wonder when I last listened to Kimonos I realize it was…back in January of 2011? Whereas every Zazen Boys’ release still has a home on my dusty iPod, Kimonos sits somewhere near the bottom of my CD case. Again, not a failure, but 2010 had way better releases like….

Miu Sakamoto Phantom Girl – Lost J-Pop classic, right here. I’m currently pecking away at a post about J-Pop in 2012 and how it’s having a creative renaissance (though after reviewing the Kimonos paragraph above, keep your fingers crossed), and Phantom Girl seems like an artsy release that impacted at least a few of the folks making great pop today. Besides being a great influence, it’s also a hell of a great pop album still demanding attention in 2012.

New House “Disturb” – Honesty first – “I’m waiting for The New House to release a non “demo” version of “Transparent Box,” to the point where I kept the current in-work version streaming on their MySpace off this list, holding out hope 2011 will bring a polished version that would be guaranteed to crash at least the top 20.”

Lot of statements in the above paragraph did not pan out – New House didn’t release a polished version of “Transparent Box” until 2012, said 2012 version will not be touching the top 20 and MySpace now exists as a .GIF file graveyard. This year’s Burning Ship Fractal highlights everything good about New House – the globally-aware blend of styles, the confidence to balls out with experimental sounds – but it’s also a debut suffering from really bad sequencing (shouldn’t have put the two Animal Collective-ist songs back to back, and shouldn’t have made the back half of the album the boring drone comedown) and bad timing. It was way easier to get jazzed about “Transparent Box”…or the skeletal “Disturb,” which would have been a welcome bit of minimalistic rock on Burning Ship Fractal…back in 2010, when Animal Collective’s pop tribalism still sounded like a brave new frontier. Now, even Animal Collective moved on from that.

Asian Kung-Fu Generation “Shinseiki No Love Song” – Context is everything for some of these songs and albums. In 2010, an existential rock song about being an adult but feeling lost in a rapidly changing world courtesy of Asian Kung-Fu Generation sounded great. And it was! Unfortunately, Sakanaction evolved into the Japanese Radiohead (here not referring to their sound so much as their merger of smarts with angst) and made “Shinseiki No Love Song” completely outdated.

MIR “TV 2010” – “TV 2010,” meanwhile, remains as vital as ever, and maybe even more important as Japan continues embracing social networks and smartphones and other world-altering electronics. It’s still a buzzing modem of a song, all social isolation and chilly New Wave keyboards crossing together to create something that sounds like the perfect soundtrack to opening eight Firefox tabs at once.

Even heavier, the world probably won’t ever hear anything else from MIR, a truly gifted outfit that left us with a great collection of music. Hell of a bow, “TV 2010,” though.

Nu Clear Classmate Lick The Star – This past January, at a live show featuring Canopies And Drapes which is a project born out of the ashes of Nu Clear Classmate, a friend explained the idea of foreigners living in Japan “adopting” bands. To paraphrase – when they come to Japan, people from outside the country tend to “adopt” a Japanese band, going to a bunch of their shows and in general supporting them. They also tend to not really support any sort of scene, but rather just one project. Eventually, this conversation reached the point where my friend said that the band I sorta adopted was Nu Clear Classmate.

He’s probably right.

I mention this as a sort of disclaimer for the second half of this sentence, the part right here where I say the group’s Lick The Star should have been in my top five albums list and probably could have creeped up as high as number two on the right day. Nu Clear Classmate’s “suicide pop” (their term, not mine, though I wish I could have thought of that) didn’t get wishy-washy with emotions – rather, they fucking blew that shit up into size 96, the sad songs feeling like the end of the world while the happy songs sound like pure sunshine injections. Few projects anywhere in the world since have been so maximalist about feeling while still making great pop music.

Personally, though, Lick The Star has become the CD from 2010 I revisit the most, like a scream therapist who wants me to purge all my emotions out on a monthly basis. I’ll spare you the goop, but Lick The Star helped me through some pretty bleak times, giving me a soundtrack to be completely consumed by bad feeling while also offering the sort of concentrated hope you should need a prescription for. Today, Nu Clear Classmate doesn’t exist, the members of that group transforming into Canopies And Drapes (a really good project worth bandwagoning on, but also one with a lot of potential waiting to be unleashed) and…well, a good Twitter feed. Nu Clear Classmate themselves probably wouldn’t gel with this idea – they loved the promise of the future – but albums like this make looking back necessary.

Hotel Mexico “It’s Twinkle” – Shiiiiiiiiiiiiiiit I didn’t put this in the top ten? That was stupid of me, this song still kills.

Perfume “Natural Ni Koishite” and “575” – The narrative post Game has been about Perfume becoming more “pop,” with a few brave souls (read: misguided high schoolers I hope) claiming they “sold out” at some point in the last few years. Ignoring the bizarre thinking that an idol group wouldn’t immediately rack up whatever commercial endorsements they could with the onset of success, I’d also be a little hesitant to say Perfume have been trending exclusively pop since “Polyrhythm.” Case in point – this pair of singles from 2010, two of the trio’s best. “Natural” makes a case for Perfume to try selling music in international lands what with its nail-polish-slick sheen and weirdo touches, while “575” finds the trio nudged into sexy minimalism…until the post-chorus rap hits.

Basically, I’m just reassuring ya’ll that my opinions of Perfume haven’t changed, thanks for listening.