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Review: Merpeoples’ Metropolis

The other week I paid a visit to Osaka to do some music shopping. This excursion via the Kintetsu railway used to be a common part of my life, the sort of thing I’d mentally pencil into my weekend plans if nothing else of interest materialized. Which, turned out, happened a lot. Yet my forays into the city started decreasing significantly in 2011, a combination of more interesting things happening in my part of rural Japan and because of a shortage of quality Japanese music coming out over the past few years. Sure, a few noteworthy LPs dropped, highlighted by The Morning’s debut (out of stock on Amazon) and a discombobulated effort from Oorutaichi (readily available on iTunes), but that was about it. The shelves of Japanese music I used to sprint to now seemed boring, resulting in more visits to used record shops if I even bothered to drop the 980 yen at all.

This most recent trip into the heart of the Kansai region, though, led to a minor revelation. After some initial disappointment…how does no store have a single copy of the new Mountain Goats in stocks???…something hit me while staring at the “coming soon” poster at Tower Records. “Oh man, there is a lot of good Japanese music out right now.” The past month and a half has seen new stuff from The Cigavettes, Sloppy Joe, Cubismo Grafico Five, Puffyshoes and that Salyu-Cornelius collaboration…just to name a few. Things only get better in May, which will see a new Capsule album, a fresh pair of Perfume songs, a new full-length from DODDODO and whoknowswhatelse I’m missing. I’ve even heard through the digital grapevine She Talks Silence has new material forthcoming. Looks like I need to put aside some weekend travel money once again.

Yet, despite a rush of new releases threatening to push me towards a loan, it’s an eight-song mini-album from a group who last year created one of the most “just OK” releases that threatens to hold a monopoly on my speakers and claim a seat on my “favorite albums of the year” list. Merpeoples seem an unlikely bunch to release said record, previously being a young, good-but-not-great collection of hip young Tokyo-ites that had a pair of catchy singles to their credit. Yet sophomore outing Metropolis finds Merpeoples making an artistic leap forward without even having to dive into experimental deep ends, the band becoming confident enough in their sound to explore the edges of it, with thrilling results.

Last year’s self-titled debut mostly showed flashes of potential greatness, anchored by the poppy punch of “Picasso” and “Sherman.” That mini-album introduced the Merpeoples’ style, a sonic version of Pong wherein guitars and keyboard fell into a repetition similar to the not-quite-math-rock Foals dabbled in a while ago. The songs on Merpeoples sounded tight and, as some described them, appropriate for an indie dance club, but followed a predictable formula the group rarely ventured away from. Metropolis opens with something similar on the title track, carefully plotted guitar strums ushering us in. The addition of an actual piano piques interest, but everything seems in its right place, vocals bouncing back and forth between those looping sounds.

Then…a wall of fuzz and the chorus introduces us to a Merpeoples unafraid of messing with what happens between those repetitions, like building a solid house but tossing buckets of paint wildly in the living room. The piano, at first a charming new touch, reveals itself to be a wild actor that seemingly goes out of tune at times. Everything picks up in intensity, the singing more urgent than before, those same guitars and drums that really haven’t changed feeling like the walls of the trash pit in Star Wars. Rinse and repeat…then comes the other revelation later in “Metropolis.” Everything slows to a creepy crawl, and Merpeoples have plunged into what might as well be an entirely new song complete with sing-speak vocals. It doesn’t last long before the group breaks into one last sprint, but those few seconds show a brave new Merpeoples.

At this point, before I submerge myself too deep in giddy seas, I should note Metropolis also wows because Merpeoples’ general songwriting skills have simply improved since last year. The organ-ized keyboard sound less like the psychy buttons of their self-titled and more like an integral edition to the music. Lead-singer Charlotte also sounds far more confident this go around, her vocals taking on an immediate edge while still retaining the pop accessibility of those breakthrough singles. Sometimes the band just sounds tougher, like on “Program” which opens with a pitter-pattering drum barrage that ends up exploring all sorts of directions, highlighted by a chorus where Charlotte approaches something sounding like a just-held-in shout. “Mutter,” meanwhile, comes closest to recalling “Picasso” and “Sherman,” what with its repetitious verses suddenly turning into a big bright chorus . Yet “Mutter” embraces slightly unsettling touches, like how the verses sound semi sinister and how sometimes the guitars and keyboards just take on a mind of their own.

Metropolis’ ends on a particularly strong three-song sequence, one that pushes the album even higher and cements the band’s evolution. “つかわれない扉 ” starts this sequence strangely – it’s an unabashed ballad, a first for Merpeoples. Even more stunning, they pull it off without surrendering their souls…check the guitar squall trying to rip through the chorus…but still getting the emotional across…check Charlotte’s singing. As good as this foray into slower territory sounds, it’s the following number that ends up being the early favorite for Japanese song of the year. “まぼろし” borrows cues from one of 2010’s most celebrated singles, LCD Soundsystem’s “All I Want,” down to the general pace of both guitar-heavy songs being eerily similar. It would be tempting to call Merpeoples out on biting but…here comes the contentious part of the review…”まぼろし” comes off as both better and more original than James Murphy’s number. The problem with “All I Want”…and to some degree, a large chunk of the LCD catalog…is that it reminds listeners of other artists instead of the one actually performing it. Nearly every write-up of “All I Want” mentioned the resemblance to David Bowie’s “Heroes” and that’s just it…that song sounded like LCD Soundsystem trying to be Bowie, the same way they tried being countless other bands over the course of their run. “まぼろし ” may be similar to LCD and, by proxy, Bowie, but Merpeoples make sure that it sounds distinctly like them. It’s a six-minute triumph, a brave stylistic step forward for the band but one true to what they’ve been doing since Merpeoples.

Plus, “まぼろし ” chorus sounds way bigger and emotionally resonant than “All I Want’s,” and you don’t have to sit through “Drunk Girls” to get to it.

The album ends with Merpeople’s cover of Imawano Kyosiro and Ryuuichi Sakamoto’s goofy new-wave number “Ikenai Rouge Magic.” I’ve written at length about why this update slays the original and ends up being a daring move for Merpeoples, so I won’t rehash what I’ve already spilled like so many packs of Fun Dip…the candy equivalent of this song…agaain. On Metropolis, “Ikenai” plays us out, a deserved celebration for a group that just spent the past half-hour killing it. Love And Hates (HNC and Miila) join in the revelry and it almost feels like an initiation, two of Japan’s best artists extending Merpeoples’ into their circle the only way they know – with yips and whoops and possibly Champagne spilled on the carpet. It’s the perfect way to close this coming-out shindig out, even though you be sure this won’t be the last time it will be talked about this year.