As 2009 comes to a close and I eagerly await unwrapping a new calendar on Christmas, this seems like a good point to take a look at this Japan Times’ “year in review” article by Ian Martin. Besides talking about clone army AKB48 and the guy from SMAP running around naked, he also devotes a few paragraphs to techno-pop trio (and Make Believe Melodies’ eternal music crush) Perfume’s big year. It’s a well deserved victory lap, but Martin sees a few “cracks in the facade” for the electro music the group has helped elevate. He points to the failure of similar artists to make an impact on the market and then zeroes in on how this genre has “already descended into self parody” because a comedian produced a similar-sounding outfit called Cosmetics.
Two things: first, that “self parody” bit needs to be called out because one “joke” group followed by a bunch of made-up band names played for straight yucks isn’t proof of anything except the importance of self-editing. This would be like saying the existent of the Fat Boys shows how rap has just become a running gag. And do we even know if Cosmetics is a punchline? This song would be more than welcome on Perfume’s latest, it’s great. Chris Rock rapped on an Ol’ Dirty Bastard track, and people still took that seriously!
Secondly (and something Martin can’t be blamed for), the same month this article pondered about the potential demise of techno-pop, √thumm released there excellent debut full-length Coton. The trio takes plenty of inspiration from Perfume, Capsule and (the Japanese genre’s father) Yellow Magic Orchestra while also adding a touch of rock to the electronic-heavy affair to craft 55-minutes of ear-pleasing music. Coton serves as the big coming-out moment for a blossoming indie tech-pop-rock scene developing in Japan’s Kansai region, boasting other young club-friendly groups like Bang Bang Balloon and Squash. It’s a piece of gooey electro-pop stacked with killer choruses and feet-moving beats, one of 2009’s best albums by one of Japan’s most thrilling new bands.
The actual make-up of √thumm’s songs aren’t particularly cutting edge: dance-worthy electronics dashed with some rock elements, nice-enough verses transforming into knockout choruses that the band latch onto. Basically, they are following the same formula Cut Copy used to ride to the top of Hype Machine. And thank goodness for that, Cut Copy rule! √thumm err more on the side of electronics – every track on Coton thumps forward via house beats while a variety of other electronic squiggles tangle up with lead singer Lio’s dusty vocoder vocals. Things rarely approach the ear-drum-wrecking production overload Perfume sometimes fall victim to, the band instead cherry picking ideas from J-Pop, dance and rock, then laying them out in such a way as to never overwhelm listeners.
Coton’s big accomplishment, though, is how these tracks excel at creating mood. Whereas Perfume churn out candy-coated disco pop and Bang Bang Balloon release more “traditional” house jams, √thumm’s music tends to blend together into one constantly bumping mass. The trick is Lio’s singing – the effects masking her voice allows the lyrics to avoid being the center of attention, instead allowing them to slide back and meld with the rest of the noise. Plus, this technique obscures the actual words to the point where the only way to know what Lio actually says you’ll have to consult the lyric book, allowing her to slip back even more. The actual lyrics do surprise, but only in how nonsensical they are: “Magic Love’s” chorus goes “How thick/is this love + 18Fat kick/anytime/Drive6 16 Beat4.” It’s dance music, not the Mountain Goats.
The band use this ability to generate mood masterfully. “NEU!” condenses a night at the dance club down to four minutes, the beat continually pounding forward as the song goes from initial rush to cool-down to arms-in-the-air at the chorus. √thumm bring to mind Chemical Brothers on the double whammy of “Star Space” and “SP,” the former being a lightspeed techno swirl and the latter a slow burning instrumental, Coton’s only one. Just as good are the come-down numbers, slower tracks like “Beautiful Field” and “Hama.” Save for the persistent beat, “Beautiful Field” approaches Daft Punk’s moodier pieces (think “Something About Us”) in its ability to completely bathe the listener in electronics that are either really romantic or really depressing depending on your mood. The only track on the LP that sounds like conventional J-Pop is “Cosmic Square,” and even that song excels thanks to a NASA-worthy bass line, some robo backing vocals and a huge chorus.
Speaking of…those choruses! They are √thumm’s specialty, little blasts of sugar-sweet joy. This band’s so confident in the catchiness of there hooks they didn’t bother to write any verses for “NEU!”, and they aren’t missed. The centerpiece, though, is “Magic Love.” The track’s chorus soars higher than anything else in the band’s repertoire, Lio’s android singing stretching out and the instrumentation hitting on an absolutely star-eyed sound. It’s the type of track that plants a smile on your face when you hear the opening notes escape a disco’s soundsystem.
“We are…how to put it. Our job is to make you feel that happiness inside.” √thumm told SPIN Earth this during an interview shot in July. “Even if you speak English.” Coton taps into that universal thrill pop music revels in – the bliss of the big moment, the feeling of something familiar and the fun of getting feet moving. It’s what makes this album such a triumph and why this type of music will stick around- whatever you want to call this stuff, it’s pop at heart, and that’s not going anywhere anytime soon.
Info on how to buy Coton can be found here