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Review: Hotel Mexico’s His Jewelled Letter Box

Hotel Mexico’s being pushed hard as Japan’s first chillwave band. The Kyoto-based six piece has garnered attention from indie-leaning magazine Snoozer to national newspaper The Japan Times because they offer an easy gateway to the hottest blog-centric trend of the moment. Even chillwave-depot Altered Zones wrote a blurb about the band, wherein they dropped the word “shimmering” and compared them to Delorean. Hotel Mexico themselves certainly help play up the image – in the Times piece it’s revealed the band released a live performance on VHS and their first EP on cassette. Bass player Kai Ito says the band “are very attracted to analog as a format.”

All this branding has done wonders for the band’s PR game, but it’s also terribly misleading. Hotel Mexico’s debut album His Jewelled Letter Box sounds very little like chillwave. Of course, a statement like that must be followed up with the clarification that NOBODY has really given a clear definition of what this genre sounds like outside of “see Washed Out/Neon Indian/Ariel Pink/Beach House (?).” Well, Washed Out sounds nothing like Neon Indian, who in turns doesn’t much resemble Toro Y Moi, who certainly doesn’t evoke Beach Fossils. Accordingly, Hotel Mexico don’t recall any of those bands save for a general lo-fi feel. You could get into the whole vague nostalgia/sincerity angle of chillwave…but such abstract discussions would get away from this CD, which features some great music regardless of what you try to label it.

Waiting to greet you from the get-go, though, is the album’s most chillwave-ey number “It’s Twinkle.” Responsible for the majority of Hotel Mexico’s blog exposure, the song opens with gauzy/hazy/swirling guitar which could easily be called “nostalgic.” Yet instead of riding out this noise for three minutes, the band instead builds with it, adding in guitars and honest-to-god drums. Whereas as some chillwave songs seem content to spin their wheels, “It’s Twinkle” build up to several different climaxes. The only other glo-fi-ey (remember that one?) aspect of this song doubles as the album’s biggest weakness, the faint vocals. They sound too muddled, to un-committed throughout Letter Box. You wish they could have scraped together enough cash to get a better mic.

Outside of the singing though, this album rises well above the typical chillwave trappings. I have a theory why – whereas a lot of chillwave artists take dance music and make it more introverted, Hotel Mexico create music that can actually be danced to. The Japan Times’ article reveals every member of the band also DJs, so they probably have a good idea of what gets people moving and they apply it to Letter Box. Trick one – real drums. Masaaki Iwamoto brings a real pulse to Hotel Mexico’s songs, giving even the relatively formless “Archaic Smile” a path to follow. Those same drums, coupled with slinky bass, give “G.I.R.L” a funk feel making it ready for the dancefloor. Real percussion goes a long way to making Letter Box strong.

Elsewhere, the band dabble in other sounds. “The Beneath” sees Hotel Mexico paying homage to Glass Candy, minimal instrumentation with a vaguely creepy feel backing up talk-sing that at times gets a bit clunky (sample lyric: “even TV On The Radio is on radios and on, of course, TVs”). “Starling, Tiger, Fox” follows in “It’s Twinkle’s” footsteps, starting small with only some keyboard and violins before slowly bursting into color. “2nd Floor” powers forward on a beer-commercial beat that’s also the only time the band approach anything resembling “tropical” sounds.

Credit should be heaped on Hotel Mexico and Second Royal Records for knowing just how to market Letter Box. Though the blog attention isn’t gonna land them any mainstream attention, it’s still the most hype I’ve seen any other new Japanese band get this year. Smart branding aside though, tagging this album as exclusively “chillwave” remains highly dubious. It’s much more than that, and anyone who dismisses this on those grounds will be missing out on one of the better lo-fi Japanese albums of 2010.