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Review: Soutaiseiriron’s Synchroniciteen

“Being mysterious” has long been a successful gimmick exploited by musicians to grab some media attention. Much like in professional wrestling…how disappointed were you when masked hellspawn Kane was revealed to be a bald white guy?…an air of mystery and inaccessibility can get a lot of folks interested in what you serve up. But not giving interviews or having an official website can only go so far. Save for Jandek, if a musical group doesn’t make good music people eventually stop caring. The Tough Alliance and jj didn’t become blog darlings because Google Image Search brought up few photos, but because both groups made top notch pop music with an undercurrent of playful situationalist politics. The Knife didn’t land on everyone’s end-of-the-oughts list because they wore bird masks…they just made one of the best pop albums of the decade.

Every single article about Soutaiseiriron…including my own…talks at some point about the band’s mysterious ways. Few publicity shots of the group exist online and they don’t talk to the media. These two points have got prominent play in the few reviews of the outfit’s new album Synchroniciteen before the album itself gets lauded. Here’s the problem – the “Soutaiseiriron is so mysterious!” angles has been played up so much I think it’s giving this album a critical boost it’s not really deserving of. Sure, finding anything about the group borders on the impossible…but so what? That shouldn’t transform an OK album into one of 2010’s best.

Soutaiseiriron mostly play stripped down J-Pop. The overproduction dooming most mainstream Japanese pop gets thrown out here, replaced with delicate guitar lines, minimal percussion and the occasional electronic effect. I see why this formula would appeal to Japanese music critics swamped by J-Pop artists who seemingly exist exclusively in Kirin ads…this stripped down musical and PR approach definitely comes as a breath of fresh air. Yet this doesn’t excuse some pretty unexciting songs. Synchroniciteen opener “シンデレラ” pretty much previews what’s to come – neon-tinged synths offer initial intrigue before a guitar line drops into the song and ends up becoming the song’s dominant sound. A sound, I might add, that sounds a bit too much like the music played during the Weather Channel’s “Local On The 8s” segment. Before the track winds up, the band hits on one excellent sounding idea.

The majority of songs on Synchroniciteen generally follow this formula, save for the group’s few forays into straight-ahead rock which ignore the whole “catchy” thing entirely. Let’s ignore those weak points and return to “シンデレラ” for a second – it’s a track that opens up interestingly, starts becoming too repetitive after a minute, then hits on one genius idea, here the chorus, which allows the lead singer to show off her vocal acrobatics (more on that later). Problem is…the song shows off this highpoint but then immediately returns to the now-doubly-boring part that preceded it. The track repeats itself, sticking to the less exciting part before springing the really cool part on the listener one more time. Soutaiseiriron never develop the music any further than this, instead teasing with awesome sounding bits before pulling them back. Most of the songs here suffer this problem, becoming an annoying exercise in putting up with meh ideas for the payoffs.

But good god damn, those payoffs. So good I almost wanted to sugarcoat the rest of Synchroniciteen’s shortcomings, they all come courtesy of lead singer Etsuko Yakushimaru’s voice, capable of both prettiness and sudden shifts in speed like it’s a verbal time machine. She takes something as unsexy as saying the word “China” repeatedly on “チャイナアドバイス” and turns it into one of the album’s most sticking moments. Elsewhere, she zig-zags through a guitar line imitating the “Asian music” you’d expect to find in a Looney Tunes’ short from the 1940s on “(恋は)百年戦争” and glides perfectly in time with the scittery pace of late highlight “小学館.” After being confronted with Synchroniciteen’s most irksome sound – funk guitar – on “マイハートハードピンチ,” Yakushimaru steps in to save the song by delivering the album’s most hypnotic vocal moment – come the chorus, she basically just runs through the Japanese alphabet, but does so in such a captivating way I’m convinced an LP of her just reading off the Domino’s Pizza menu would blow my mind.

Oh, and let’s not forget about the “Miss Parallel World,” the single that convinced me to give this album a shot in the first place. The verse instrumentation shifts ever so much, the little turns adding a layer of intrigue often missing from the rest of the songs. Then there’s the predictably great chorus, where Yakushimaru’s voice sounds like several Yakushimarus trying to sing over one another, the resulting pile-up like hypnotism. Most of the songs on this album follow the same skeleton as this one, but Soutaiseiriron just sound better on “Miss Parallel World.” It’s the record’s best and one of the year’s finest.

Still, these instances only pop up sporadically, never carried out consistently. Synchroniciteen boasts plenty of great moments and a few standout tracks, but never feels consistently good. Soutaiseiriron definitely come off as a band worth rooting for, one of the few bands capable of charting on Oricon who also aren’t annoying adverts. Yet this isn’t reason to hype up an otherwise so-so LP. It’s an OK album propped up by a mysterious band. To cut to the chase I’ll drop my air of mystery and break out ye olde Pitchfork number ratings – 6.6.