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Review: Shugo Tokumaru’s Port Entropy

Port Entropy marks a huge moment in the career of Shugo Tokumaru. I don’t mean in America, where the whimsical pop maker’s fourth album will likely see release sometime in 2011, leading to every review of said LP to rightfully bemoan his ignored status in the States…though, Pitchfork, just bless him with a “Best New Music” label and he’ll be a hundred times better off than before. No, the album with the cute drawings above serves as Tokumaru’s big breakout moment only in his native Japan, following the momentum gained by his excellent 2007 release Exit. Just look at all this anecdotal evidence I have! Port Entropy has racked up several big stories in music magazine here and nabbed prominent shelf placement at Tower Records. His upcoming tour is basically sold out…if you got extra tickets for the Osaka or Nagoya show hit up my e-mail ASAP. And, most tellingly, track two of his latest release “Tracking Elevator” plays regularly at my local Lawson’s Convenience Store. Considering they usually just play Arashi and Taylor Swift, this means something big.

All these signs of sudden success would seem to hint at Tokumaru reeling in his frantic pop experimentalism for Port Entropy. Replace his storage-room worth of instruments with sleek J-Pop production, sing a ballad, soundtrack a CC Lemon advert. Poof, Music Station time. So…surprise surprise…Shugo’s latest shocks not because of any sudden shifts towards a more accepted sound, but because it remains 100 percent Shugo. Port Entropy follows closely in the stylistic footsteps of Exit, slightly less manic at times but continuing Tokumaru’s excellent streak of intricately joyful pop.

Craig Eley of Cokemachineglow described Shugo’s ultimate strength so well in his review of Exit I won’t even bother trying to paraphrase it and just slap his quote down: “Listening to Shugo is like watching a foreign film with the subtitles off. You can’t “know” what’s being said…but you can “understand” what’s happening. You can feel. And at the end, you can say ‘that was delirious and beautiful and fun.'” Port Entropy continues Tokumaru’s tradition of making music rich in “feel,” best showcased in the album’s first four proper tracks. Following an intro fit for the Country Bear Jamboree House, “Tracking Elevator” opens with some simple guitar strumming and singing before suddenly transforming into a theme park parade where all the costumed characters twirl down main street. Voices join Shugo, who sounds like he’s singing “drunk in my lemon car” but probably isn’t . Doesn’t matter what words actually come out of his mouth…”Tracking Elevator” exudes pure feel-good vibes.

“Linne” comes after “Tracking Elevator” and shifts the album into more downtrodden territory. For the majority of the song’s run, it’s just some sentimental-tinged piano strokes and Shugo’s voice. “Linne” is the most melancholy song Tokumaru’s done since his L.S.T. days, but as the smatterings of horns and wordless voices hints at, also having an edge of hopefulness to it. This all leads to Port Entropy’s most ecstatic sequence, the one-two lawn sprinkler shot of “Lahaha” and “Rum Hee.” “Lahaha” sprinkles twinkly bells and some kiddy flute over a marching guitar strum as Shugo sings himself towards the delirious chorus, basically just the song’s title let out like he’s having the most fun on a merry-go-round ever. The previously released “Rum Hee” piles Tokumaru’s trademark playroom instrumentation onto one of the best choruses he’s ever penned, and Port Entropy’s most dizzying high. This song sequence not only stands as one of his finest recorded runs yet, but also as some of the most directly happy music…yeah, even “Linne”…of the year.

The rest of Port Entropy boasts plenty of charm as well, even if it’s not quite as intoxicating as the opening salvo. “Straw” comes closest to capturing the album’s initial joy-blast late in its run time, not to mention the direct descendant of “Parachute,” all speedy strumming outlined with gleeful instrumental touches. “Drive-Thru” takes early Beatles pop and twists it for Pee-Wee’s Playhouse, while “Orange” finds Shugo at his most relaxed pace, letting the track slowly unfold in front of samples of chirping birds and accordion drone. Closer “Malerina’s” ukulele driven rhythm finds Tokumaru dabbling in surf music, even managing to squeeze in some The Endless Summer “ooooh-oooohing” at the end. Port Entropy doesn’t really feature any obvious miscues and like his previous outings, wraps up in good time.

For all I know, Shugo Tokumaru’s actually been a household name in Japan since 2007 and drunk salarymen across the country belt out “Button” at post-drinking-party karaoke. I have my doubts though, which means Port Entropy will be the album that sees the pop tinkerer make his biggest leaps in the Japanese mainstream yet. Which is kind of incredible, because it’s neither a massive leap forward for his music or a sell-out moment…it’s another charming and enchanting Shugo record full of literal bells and whistles and an excellent ear for harmonies. I guess if you do something really well long enough, someone will notice you. So…can America get on this next?