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Review: Salyu X Salyu S(o)un(d)beams

The Salyu X Salyu project, a collaborative effort between J-Pop belter Salyu and future-savvy producer Cornelius, showcases one of the rarest forms of the “superstar musicians team up” trope. The duo’s album S(o)un(d)beams neither consolidates one another’s strengths into a unified style…see Madvillainy or to a lesser degree the work of Gnarls Barkley…nor do they cancel one another out into a mediocre mush…hello She & Him. Rather, the individual personalities of each artist manage to shine through brightly here, the two more or less doing the things they’ve always done, now just across from one another. Instead of trying to review Salyu X Salyu as one unit, lets instead focus on how each member of this album fare and draw a grand conclusion at the end.

Cornelius Side

Many people who normally wouldn’t give a lick about Salyu or J-Pop in general seem drawn to S(o)un(d)beams because of Cornelius’ involvement. Tough to blame them – since the mid-90s, he’s been the Japanese Beck, capable of dipping into nearly any genre he wants and coming out with something sounding uniquely his own. Over the course of three albums and all sorts of collaborations, he’s established himself as one of the smartest and strangest producers in the world. Couple this with a stunning live show and a Yo Gabba Gabba! appearance and you can understand why some message board denizens declare they don’t really care about the Salyu in Salyu X Salyu.

Those folks won’t be let down…Cornelius does what Cornelius does best on S(o)un(d)beams. He’s still a man in love with sound and, more specifically, how those sounds bounce around in the listener’s head. Like his own trio of LPs, this album demands headphones, the way noises in the left and right channels play with one another and how majestic it is when they come together in the middle. The funky-bass workout of “Mirror Neurotic” recalls his own “Fit Song,” while closing number “Tsuzuki Wo” seemingly beefs up the skeleton of his Muji jingle into something too joyful to be confined to a store. “Muse’ic” becomes an instant highlight in the Cornelius cannon because of how overjoyed it sounds, his usual approach of breaking apart a song and then reconnecting it into a 3-D puzzle (glued together by fat, electro bass) sounding especially triumphant in a song celebrating the creative catharsis of music itself.

Yet here’s the thing…though this record sounds gorgeous, it’s also pretty standard Cornelius operating procedure. Beautiful, but a lot of the songs on S(o)un(d)beams could easily be slight variations on his previous work (heck, I did that with just two track above, and one seems influenced by a commercial). Most of the time, Cornelius plops snippets of sound down into the song that sound a bit out-of-place at first but eventually everything comes together Intelligent Design like into a proper song. This album is a treat to listen to, but it isn’t a massive departure for Cornelius. Which, hey, is probably a good thing but given the amount of (admittedly, Internet based) people drooling over Salyu X Salyu just because of his production, it seems weird to just celebrate this work for being another example of Cornelius being Cornelius.

To be fair, the producer does explore some new territory over the course of S(o)un(d)beams. When Salyu doesn’t sing proper words but rather just makes noises, Cornelius can take those isolated calls and create staggering soundscapes. “Utaimashou” conjures up an alien world where Salyu coos like a bird, plays backwards and at one point turns into an old robot. In terms of production alone, nothing touches the title track, one of the most daring things Cornelius has done in his career. Given a chorus of Salyus, he creates a slowly unfolding sonic vista that lasts seven glorious minutes. These two songs stand as Cornelius highlights on this album.

Still, for the most part, Cornelius isn’t revealing anything new about his sound. Even given the Siren voice of Salyu, he mostly just dices it up and double it up, treating it like another sound to carefully arrange. Not a bad thing, mind you. On S(o)un(d)beams, he’s an excellent architect doing exactly what his job calls for. He’s just not the soul of the Salyu X Salyu project. That goes to…

Salyu Side

S(o)un(d)beams is Salyu’s album, a celebration of everything great about her past work and a grand rebirth, like Lady Gaga hatching out of an egg if that actually resulted in something. To properly understand why this is, a little history lesson is in order.

Despite being the “mainstream” side of the project, Salyu never really has been an A-list J-Pop star. She first popped up not as Salyu but as Lily Chou-Chou, a fictional singer in a movie in 2000. Four years later she finally debuted as, well, herself. Her albums tend to chart well – sophomore effort Terminal remains her best-selling album having moved 87,000 units and climbing as high as number two on the Oricon album charts (the follow-up got to seven, while S(o)un(d)beams hit 12). Her singles chart all over the place though – at her peak she’s gotten as high as 10 by herself, usually following somewhere between 15 and 23 (before that, though, adjust to something like between 30 and 100). A collaboration with Bank Band titled “To U” remains her best known song, having reached the second spot on the singles chart. Salyu’s not an obscure artist, but she doesn’t demand attention like cornballs Koda Kumi or Aiko.

Her strongest tool has always been her voice, a soaring sound capable of pushing upper registers without losing any power. Last year’s “Atarashi Yes” highlights everything great about Salyu – that voice, mostly, but also the way you don’t have to know a single word of Japanese or even what “yes” means to get the emotional oooomph of the single. She’s shown flashes of the same vocal power Bjork boasts. Yet Salyu’s never had a good album to her name…”Atarashi Yes” was among a pocket’s worth of good songs on her third album Maiden Voyage, a bloated affair weighed down by half-hearted stabs at mainstream balladry. Earlier releases Landmark and Terminal don’t fare much better. Salyu’s not a top-tier pop star, but whoever puts together her full-lengths desperately want her to be. Bjork carved out an identity while still in The Sugarcubes, whereas Salyu remains caught in J-Pop R&D. Up to now, she’s mostly been a case of “what if.”

Yet here, name doubled up, she’s set free to chase her “Muse’ic” without fear of censor. Cornelius hasn’t improved on Salyu’s voice, but rather crafted a sonic world wide open for her to do her thing from all sorts of angles. It’s not perfect – at this point, it should be acknowledged the album opens with a relative thunk via the annoying “Tada No Tomodachi,” a case of both Salyu and Cornelius relying too much on the gimmick of “a lot of voices at once!”…but what artistic re-emergence is? On S(o)un(d)beams she finds someone willing to let her experiment, and she dives headfirst into an opportunity that it seems like she has been waiting a long time for.

So…whereas in the hands of a more chart-obsessed person “Sailing Days” (the latest in a string of songs finding Salyu obsessed with boats) probably would have ended up a minor-key ballad, here it’s a little shanty that turns into a crescendo of Salyu’s crashing against the shore at a dizzying rate. Cornelius steps way to the background on “Kokoro” and just lets her sing hauntingly around minimal strings. “Dorei” and “Rain Boots De Odorimashou” find Salyu having some of the most fun she’s ever had on record, playing with the extremes of her voice on both (screech-iness on the prior, calmness on the latter). “Hostile To Me” doesn’t just feature a Bjork-like title, it finally finds Salyu making something resembling a Bjork-ish ballad. It all comes back to “Muse’ic,” where she emerges from a cocoon with big bright wings and like eight mouths just ready to sing the praises of art.

It’s tempting to give Cornelius more credit than he deserves for how Salyu sounds here, since the draw of Salyu X Salyu has always been “Salyu’s voice all over the place!” He deserves a lot of praise – excellent placing of her various vocal tracks, not to mention creating the music that that allowed her to sound like this – but he’s just an arranger for the most part. Salyu is the one giving the vocal performance of her career, one that doesn’t feature anything resembling the big pay-off moments like “Atarashi Yes” but rather sees her exploring every corner of her sound.

Both Sides
Salyu X Salyu bridges the gap between experimental and accessible better than any other Japanese album so far this year, Cornelius showing off his inventive production techniques but never allowing the project to sink into needless wandering through the strange. Both artist’s involved on S(o)un(d)beams can be heard loud and clear, but they’ve come together to make one of the best albums of 2011.