The cynic in me said last week that J-Pop in 2012 looked to be a gloomy affair, another 12 months of AKB48 roundabouts and Johnny’s drippings and whatever EXILE does. Three weeks into the year and I was ready to toss it out of the window. Then, with excellent timing, this past week has helped me snap out of my doom-speaking, suddenly remembering the term “J-Pop doesn’t just refer to the schoolgirl mannequins clogging up the Oricon charts but “Japanese pop” which includes a lot of stuff you don’t hear all the time. First, Sugar’s Campaign dropped a new song oozing pop goodness – The groove! The giddy chorus! The pure sonic taffy that is the song’s climax! – that band members (and experimental electronic makers outside of the group) Avec Avec and Seiho want to get attention from major labels with this. What a wonderful world that would be. Now, Nanba Shiho – who popped out of nowhere last year to record one of the more charming pop singles of 2011 – has released a song that in a just world would hang with the YUI’s and Yuki’s of the Japanese mainstream world. It’s her best work to date, and an irresistibly catchy song that shows how good the stuff we label “J-Pop” really can be.
Blooping to life, “Shoujo, Futatabi” wastes little time establishing itself as a bouncy pop number seemingly powered by sunbeams breaking through a window in the morning. The track’s spine…and strongest musical component…is the beat, a relentless smack bringing to mind other recent greats like MiChi’s “Change The World” and even the retro-thump of Perfume’s “Love The World.” Also like that pair of songs, Shiho’s latest gets beefed up by all sorts of electronic flourishes, from the big glowing synth shines in the verse to the stardust trail right before the chorus to the burbling video game noises. Sonically, “Shoujo, Futatabi” keeps everything relatively simple (beat, a few synths, some special noises popping up every once in awhile), but makes each one count.
Yet the biggest surprise here…and what gives “Shoujo, Futatabi” it’s beautiful beating heart…is Nanba Shiho herself. On last year’s “Kodona No Kaidan,” it was the production of that single that made it such a treat to listen to, Shiho herself more of a necessary feature, a face to sell music that really spoke for itself. Here she is absolutely vital, her voice moving lightly along with the beat and adding a touch of sweetness to a track that’s otherwise all about movement. The pacing of her vocals at the chorus reveals that “Shoujo, Futatabi” is basically a sped-up ballad graced with better production. The title translates to something like “Young Girl, Again,” and Shiho flips the time-tested ballad theme of youth gone into something hopeful and in the moment – Shiho makes it seem like youth isn’t something meant to be reminisced about sadly while a Disney-worthy orchestra plays, but rather a feeling one can slip into if they want at any age. Here’s hoping more people get that message.