Discussing pop music usually ends up being less a slippery slope and more like hiking up a waterfall. The act of just identifying “pop” can quickly turn into something contentious, one individual decrying the “vapid” works of Katy Perry before reminiscing about Green Day’s glory days. “Pop,” to many people, has become a bad word and the only way to engage with it is through careful modification. This is why we get people gushing about Justin Bieber slowed down to a crawl and an entire movement where garage bands making poppy sounds smear some distortion over it to become “shit-gaze.” In 2011 you’d think we reach the point where gimmicks weren’t needed to enjoy any music, yet Girl Talk’s still selling out shows. It’s not all bad though – this mutation of pop music has also rewarded with lots of great music. Most shit-gaze might be forgettable but the movement still birthed great acts like Times New Viking and Vivian Girls. Chillwave sails similar settings and has produced a handful of great artists and the resurgence of R&B music in indie circles as of late (see: The Weekend, Frank Ocean) has been a welcome boon.
In Japan, there is EeL and Halcali. Both toy with the cheery template of J-Pop and produce undeniably poppy works, but these acts have also been screwing with the very DNA of those sounds for the past 10 years. The Kansai-based EeL disregards the idea of “genres” entirely, caging reggae sounds with breakcore while also rubbing against what might as well be described as a computer being thrown out a skyscraper. Halcali, meanwhile, merge the cutesy image of J-Pop with goofy rap – they aren’t Wu-Tang but bring a distinctive style that’s a thousand times more worthy of the word rap than schlock-masters like Funky Monkey Babys. Though the two outfits have seen drastically different popular response – Halcali has landed on the Oricon charts, while EeL has been more obscure but responsible for influencing a lot of young electronic musicians in the country today – both have made some of the more thrilling music (pop or otherwise) coming out of Japan over the past decade.
Now both have new albums out, EeL with For Common People and Halcali with the stopgap mini album Tokyo Connection coming after last year’s Tokyo Groove. These releases stay true to their respective creators, engaging in madcap blending and school-yard rap propped up against bright backgrounds, yet both also manage to feel…well, a little stale. EeL and Halcali spent so long subverting popular music into their own mold that now, in 2011, sounds too predictable. What once sounded so clever now comes off as coasting.
For Common People suffers way worse in this regard than Tokyo Connection. EeL’s music still remains the sonic equivalent of sticking one’s head into a cotton candy machine, mouth wide open. Yet what in abstract sounded like a fucking great idea…”that’s a lot of sugar man”…turns into a stomach-wrecking chore. This time around, she’s letting the reggae bleed through brighter than ever, and also placing a greater emphasis on ska-inspired noises and a slightly more “punk” aesthetic. Interesting in concept for sure, but these forays often end up turning into uninspired ideas as on the lazy horn-jog of “Cherry Blossom” or the pointless “rock” of “I Know Everything.”
More frustrating is how so many of these tracks lean on the same ideas. When For Common People’s title track appeared online in zany video form back in January, that number wowed thanks to an unhinged merging of island sounds and head-snapping rock, complete with a late industrial-stomp bridge that seemed like classic EeL. Alone it sounded great, and the album proper features several similar high-energy jump kicks worthy of private time. Problem is, being corralled onto a 36-minute-long album means these numbers grind up against one another and everything starts sounding the same. “For Common People” sounds a lot like “Hungry Panda” which isn’t drastically different than “Wonderful Ability” which is only slightly different than “Everyday.” Each of those songs sound far more interesting divorced from this album, where lodged together they become a hall of mirrors. Several tracks even start off with the same “vocal sample stuttered up” trick, a gimmick so expected you could make a drinking game to it.
Only two fully-formed songs manage to really stand out. “Come Out Of A Sleep” hurls camera sounds and scratching records over a ragtime piano as EeL sings over it, the track morphing from saloon entertainment to turntable exercise. It’s a more relaxed moment that also ends too quickly. The highlight of For Common People comes on final track “Yurayura.” EeL decides that instead of incorporating reggae noises that she’ll actually make a dubbed-out number of her own, slowing the music down to a sunset-walk pace that holds for its entire six-minute playing time. Following the rapid-fire sameness that preceded it, “Yurayura” is an excellent come down, a towel laid out by a pool after an all-day marathon.
Ultimately, For Common People fails because of its pedigree. If this album came courtesy of some upstart Osaka producer nobody had heard of, I’d be writing much more positive words here. But EeL has a big discography, one swimming with records leaps better than For Common People. Her Kung-Fu Master album, for example, captures her manic energy much better than this 2011 effort ever could. Stronger still, EeL has one legitimate masterpiece to her name, an album so good that I ended up revisiting it way more than I spent listening to For Common People. Little Prince, released in 2004, highlighted EeL’s knack for revved up energy and genre-smashing, but also balanced it all out with softer, more experimental moments (the minimalism of “No Heart,” the lonely twinkles of “I’m Crying On A Straight Road,” the all-around excellence of “A Beloved Child”). The closest For Common People comes to something similar is one the two piano interludes, a pair of simple ivory-driven melodies. More of these introspective moments could have lifted up a boringly busy album like For Common People.
Tokyo Connection fares much better for simply being so much shorter than For Common People. As mentioned, this is an obvious filler move, featuring a lame redo of one of Halcali’s best songs (the endearingly silly “Strawberry Chips”) and a just-there 80kidz remix. It also gets points for featuring a legitimately great Halcali song in “Girl!Girl!Girl!,” which electronically twitches about but makes plenty of room for some solid tag-team rapping. The rest varies – the duo enlist Your Song Is Good to help them skank up Kome Kome Club’s “Roman Hikou,” and your enjoyment of that song will hinge on your opinion of ska in general. Following “Girl!Girl!Girl!” Halcali slow Connection down to play three reeled-in joints, starting with the adorable “Chirichoko,” which uses a male voice and some Foldger’s jingle-worthy harmonica to create a strange toyland vibe. “SUPERSTITIONS” and “Hey My Melody” bring considerably less to the table, the latter basically being the sorta of lazy ballad you’d hope an energetic group like Halcali would never resort to recording.
Tokyo Connection isn’t so much a failure because Halcali have become lazy with their signature playful rapping – when they bust it out, it still can get face muscles grinning – but rather because they seem to be distancing themselves from that style completely. Coupled with last year’s Tokyo Groove it seems like the pair want to remain relevant and thus try out all sorts of musical styles not suited for them to do just that (balladry, hoping for a ska revival). That album last year featured Halcali covering a bunch of other artists’ songs and trying to imitate the robo-pop of Perfume which…well not bad sounding certainly wasn’t like them. Connection just further reinforces what they started in 2010.
These albums are mainly a letdown because of who made them – EeL and Halcali have created so much noteworthy music that to see them now sorta spinning their wheels or trying to grab some Oricon money stings. Listeners should spend time with these acts for sure, by seeking out Halcali’s singles (most of which can be seen on YouTube) and by basically giving any EeL album that isn’t For Common People a go. Meanwhile, leave their latest two releases alone in 2011, where they feel less like interesting mutations of pop and more like the predictable stuff most expect from that word.