Dorian Studio Vacation
The Patrick-Nagel-referencing artwork above should clue you in – Dorian LOVES the 80s. But not in a Michael Ian Black sort of way, where jokes about Alf stretch into the three-minute range. Dorian is neither combing the depths of that neon-splashed era for ironic yucks…though he has a sense of humor about it…nor are they chillwave. Oddly enough, Studio Vacation hovers somewhat in the same space as what M83 does, an honest appreciation of the era and the sounds birthed during those times. Whereas M83 blows up the dramatic side of the 80’s, Dorian embraces the dancey aspects of it, and Studio Vacation ends up one of the best floor-oriented albums in Japan this year thanks to that.
Six of the seven songs here are pure dance tracks, no voices outside of some sexy sighing on “Sweet Technic” and robo-talk on album standout “Like A Wave.” The one exception, “Summer Rich,” enlists singer Hitomitoi to contribute lyrics and STRINGSBURN to play some butt-rockin’ guitar solos. That song ends up being Studio Vacation’s one triumphant pop moment, surrounded by a sea of synth-heavy long-burners. All of Dorian’s music contains traces of tropical sounds, songs like “Fake Vacation” stuffed to the brim with island percussion or how closer “Secret Promise” flirts with faux-Reggae.
It’s a strong enough album, but what really pushes Studio Vacation over the top is the one-two wallop of "Melty Color" and the aforementioned "Like A Wave." "Melty Color" is seven minutes of cosmic neon keyboard gusting over everything, a dance track exploding with color. As for "Like A Wave…" well, Dorian's live performance of it pretty much sums up why that songs is worth your time.
Studio Vacation isn’t a revelation, not in a climate where so many Japanese artists are turning to the 80s for guidance. Yet, alongside The Brixton Academy and maybe Pop-Office, Dorian nails the feel of that time’s music, capturing the club-filling aspects of it wonderfully. A snippet of it might sound like VH1 fodder, but the whole album makes it clear Dorian isn’t joking around.
Toddle The Shimmer
Toddle’s pedigree assures they can pull off an album like The Shimmer. Honestly, how can I say anything truly negative about a group featuring former Number Girl members and Bloodthirsty Butchers? It helps a lot that this album is pretty good…but nothing more. Toddle play a straight-ahead sort of rock that’s like a less manic Zazen Boys, organized but assured and never jolting off course. Thus, The Shimmer features a bunch of good songs that you’d have no objections playing for anyone in your family, but they all kind of sound vaguely familiar. A few standout – the especially loud thrashing of “Thorn” proves memorable – but for the most part Toddle do what Toddle do – make enjoyable rock music you’d gladly shell out $30 to see live and a little extra to get the new CD, but nothing you’d tattoo on yourself.
Yet this album does come with one definite year-end contender, the hooky title track. With dual vocals mimicking one another, the band delivers an especially catchy blast of their take on rock, angular-ish but not too mathy to turn off those who weren’t so Algebra-ready. “Shimmer” just sounds better than anything else on the CD, and one of 2011’s better J-Rock tunes.
Towa Tei Sunny
I’ll admit the following is one of the laziest things a critic could do but…boy, this album really does sound Sunny! Virtual tomatoes down, because Towa Tei’s latest brims with positive vibes. This album opens with a Xerox-worthy take on Beck’s Midnight Vultures, and along the way tackles new-age Tin Pan Alley and Michael Jackson’s Off The Wall (peep late album cut “Get Myself Together”). Even an expected downer like “Melancholic Sunshine” isn’t all that depressing, Tei’s robo-reggae still flooded with daylight. The album’s high watermark, though, ends up being lead single “The Burning Plain.” Tei recruited Yellow Magic Orchestra singer Yukihiro Takahashi and Norwegian Wood actress Kiko Mizuhara to add vocals over a beeping, horn-filled creation. Everything comes together, though, to form pure pop pleasure.
Sloppy Joe With Kisses Four
Originality is cool and all, but when a musician basically rips off older groups and does it extremely well, I’m OK with a lack of new ideas. Sloppy Joe don’t just mine 80’s rock music, they approach it like the actor craving an Oscar at all costs, shaving off hair and gaining 50 pounds for an Academy-baiting role. It sounds like Sloppy Joe have managed to possess Robert Smith on most of With Kisses Four, the vocals on nearly every track bringing to mind the semi-goth’s voice. Except when they decide to inhabit the body of Morrissey, such as on the title track. Sonically, it’s pretty much the same game: The Cure and The Smiths obviously, though for those needing a more obscure game of connect the dots just look over the early Sarah Records roster. Oh, and horns. Chances are you’ve heard what this album sounds like before…but not like this album. A surprising highlight of 2011.
The Cigavettes The Cigavettes
Speaking of biting from the past…
You know that person who says their favorite artist is The Beatles? The moment they say that, chances are you find them completely boring. There isn’t anything wrong with loving The Beatles…heck, had hypothetical-person stated “I hate The Beatles” the look going across your hypothetical face would probably be a lot more disturbing. Yet pretty much everyone likes The Beatles, but saying they are your favorite musical act of all-time seems…unexciting. I’m sure said person is capable of a good conversation and is probably an all-around pleasant being…but the moment I hear that any musical conversation is probably dead on arrival.
The Cigavettes are basically that person. Their self-titled debut mimics the sunny-pop of Liverpool’s finest for almost 40 minutes, and the group never sound bad doing this. Yet they also never sound particularly interesting during this span, doing an impersonation that could probably net pretty good tips outside of Grauman’s Chinese Theater. So yeah, pleasant…but why not just shell out the money for 1 and experience the real deal? The biggest drawback, honestly, is that The Cigavettes set out only to imitate the band’s most pop-tastic moments. That’s great, but what made The Beatles’ great were how weird they could get. Plenty of other artists have tackled the Fab Four’s stranger side…The Olivia Tremor Control, for one…so maybe The Cigavettes should have tried branching out a bit? Whatever, I’m sure they are nice guys, I just don’t want to talk to them for all that long.