Last year was a good one stateside for Japanese experimental folk-pop maestro Shugo Tokumaru. Exit, his latest full-length and one of my favorite albums of 2007, was officially issued in the U.S. on Almost Gold Recordings and he even put together a short tour here with support from members of Beirut (which included a performance at the CMJ Festival as well as a quick East Coast run with The Magnetic Fields). It was enough to make me forget that we could probably expect to hear some new music from him pretty soon… and lo and behold, today Shugo released a single with three brand new tracks, three alternate takes of previously recorded songs, and a couple remixes.
The A-side, “Rum Hee”, is rich, triumphant, and anthemic, awash in an abundance of bright hues and sunny textures. Opening with driving guitar strums, sleigh bell shakes, and a background of light bird chirps, the song plays out like the soundtrack for a frolic through a magical forest, its layers of smile-inducing sounds swelling and subsiding, cascading over the listener in exhilarating waves. “Rum Hee” is also given the remix treatment by noise-pop mainstays Deerhoof and Osakan electro-weirdo Oorutaichi. Both are really good, but I figured I’d post the one that I find the most interesting… and to my surprise, it isn’t Deerhoof’s subtle, percussive reworking. Oorutaichi manages to outdo them by reimagining “Rum Hee” as a piece of glitch-laden, beat-driven electronica, all the while maintaining the wide-eyed wonder of the original.
Download: Shugo Tokumaru – Rum Hee (removed by request)
Download: Shugo Tokumaru – Rum Hee (Oorutaichi Remix) (removed by request)
Buy: Rum Hee is only available in Japan at the moment, but you can pick up the CD and a bonus DVD with footage from Shugo’s U.S. tour at CD Japan for $18.94 (plus shipping). Or, if you can’t shell that out, follow this iTunes link and click “Change Store” to be able to download Rum Hee for about $12. To change back to the U.S. Store, scroll down to the bottom of the iTunes Store homepage, click the “My Store” pull down menu and then click “United States”.
Watch: MP3s are a no-go, but check out the official video for “Rum Hee” which features a mass of black-and-white U.S. tour, travel, studio, and cat footage.
One of the best artists hailing from Japan these days, intricate experimental pop-folker Shugo Tokumaru, has finally released his latest record in the U.S. Last year’s Exit, another one of my favorite albums from 2007, is the first of his to see a release in the States and came out yesterday via Almost Gold Recordings. So, for all of you who haven’t been able to check out this excellent record (or those who’ve downloaded it), lend some support and pick up a copy from your local record store or just order it online.
Shugo will also be playing a few shows in the U.S. and Canada. If you’re anywhere near these cities, I’d recommend you make a serious effort to get there… unless you plan on going to Japan, chances are you won’t get many opportunities to see him again.
Sept. 13 — Chicago, IL — Empty Bottle (Wire’s Adventures in Music Festival)*
Sept. 23 — New York, NY — Mercury Lounge (w/ Twi the Humble Feather)**
Oct. 3 — Montréal, QC — O Patro Vys (Pop Montréal Festival, w/ special guests)
Last week, Zazen Boys released a video for “Weekend” from Zazen Boys 4, their upcoming album that was recorded at Tarbox Road Studios by Dave Fridmann (The Flaming Lips, Mercury Rev, and many others) earlier this year. It’s definitely exciting that frontman/resident genius Mukai Shutoku is working with Fridmann again, as their previous two collaborations, Sappukei and Num-Heavy Metallic, were the two strongest albums of Mukai’s former band (the indelible Number Girl).
“Weekend” finds Zazen Boys delving into somewhat familiar territory as they juxtapose pop elements with their trademark off-kilter experimentalism. Bending riffs, digressive guitar leads, sparse bass-slaps, and swaggering keyboards dominate this track, framing Mukai’s staggered falsetto in waves of minimal gonzo-funk. The minimalist tendencies extend heavily into the video itself, as the Z-Boys are lined up in a bare studio, spaced out evenly, and then proceed to freeze, pose, overact, and freakout in fairly hilarious absurdity.
No mp3s from the new album floating about yet, but here’s frantic math-jam “DARUMA” from last year’s I Don’t Wanna Be With You EP (my 2nd favorite EP of 2007). You can also stream higher quality versions of both new videos from Zazen Boys over at their website.
Download: Zazen Boys – DARUMA
Buy: Zazen Boys 4 is due out September 17th on Mukai Shutoku’s own Matsuri Studio label. For us not living in Japan, look for it at the iTunes Store. Full tracklist and awesome, tongue-in-cheek cover art after the jump. Continue reading
Between finals, sorting out my upcoming graduation, holidays, and securing my own webspace (look for a move shortly!), it’s been a quiet couple of months around here. But I’m back with a couple of lists to round out my contributions for 2007… even if we’re in 2008 now.
5. Grizzly Bear – Friend
I’ve been a bit slow to come around to these guys, but this EP of odds and ends is a remarkably strong follow-up to Yellow House, one of the best full-lengths of 2006. In fact, Friend stands alone quiet well. The only real “misses” are some competent, but also fairly boring covers by C.S.S. and Band of Horses. Outside of that the EP is chock-full of highlights, including new versions of old songs that improve upon already impressive foundations (“Alligator”, “Little Brother”, “Shift”), a sparse new track (“Granny Diner”), a beautiful home recording from Daniel Rossen (“Deep Blue Sea”), and a more successful cover of “Knife” by Bradford Cox’s Atlas Sound project. Yet, perhaps the best track on Friend is Grizzly Bear‘s haunting cover of “He Hit Me (It Felt Like a Kiss)” (written by Gerry Goffin and Carole King, popularized by The Crystals and Phil Spector). Originally conceived as a kind of satire, the Grizzly Bear arrangement pushes the song into truly dark territory until it operates as a kind of antithesis to the somewhat vague Phil Spector/Crystals interpretation.
4. Nero’s Day at Disneyland – Colonists
The works of Brock Schism always seem to have me captivated and Colonists is no exception. On this latest Nero’s Day at Disneyland EP he continues to push his sound into new instrumental territory, interlacing his screeching, maniacal breakcore with counterpoints of haunting ambience. The whole record is a kind of twisted balance between pure annihilation and ominous dread. Rich, chaotic, ugly, painful, exacting, and downright awe-inspiring, Colonists may leave you exhausted, but it also leaves you wanting more. Lucky for us, Brock also plans to release a full-length in 2008 (aptly titled From Rotting Fantasylands), his first since 2004.
3. Beirut – Lon Gisland
Zach Condon has become quite the force in the indie world since his relative explosion onto the scene with 2006’s Gulag Orkestar, putting out another great full-length (The Flying Club Cup) and EP in 2007. As the first recording to feature his live band, Lon Gisland does not disappoint, as Condon’s sprawling Balkan-inspired compositions are imbued with a fullness he couldn’t quite achieve on previous solo efforts. Perhaps as a testament to this fact, Beirut reworks the largely electronic-based “Scenic World” into a new version that reveals the full potential of the song as a much richer, sorrowful piece. However, the strongest track on the EP may be the anthemic opener “Elephant Gun”, which makes it very apparent that Condon’s crooning vocals also benefit from this full-bodied instrumentation.
2. Zazen Boys – I Don’t Wanna Be With You
Zazen Boys, easily my favorite active Japanese band, have consistently put out albums that end up totally dominating my listening habits. And though this EP was a bit of a latecomer (released on December 16th), I have no qualms placing it so high on the list. One part off-kilter new wave, one part frantic math rock, and one part jazz fusion jam, I Don’t Wanna Be With You is the latest genre-bending vision from band leader Mukai Shutoku. Not only does it fit quite nicely into their state of constant progression, but it also finds Zazen Boys at the top of their game on every track, even after replacing bassist Hinata Hidekazu earlier in the year.
Download: Zazen Boys – DARUMA
Buy: The easiest (and cheapest) way for us in the West to get this, or any other Zazen Boys release, would be at the iTunes Store. You can also order a hard copy from CDJapan, but it’ll cost you nearly three times as much.
1. Tera Melos – Drugs to the Dear Youth
There wasn’t much of a question on what EP would take my number one spot. I’ve listened to this sucker more than anything else this year and my appreciation for these guys just keeps growing. Drugs to the Dear Youth is steps ahead of Tera Melos‘ untitled debut, and truly showcases their proficiency and ambition. Adopting a kind of free-jazz approach to their highly complex instrumental rock, they largely abandoned traditional song structures and instead crafted an epic, emotional, and relentless EP that is best appreciated as a whole. Sure, they may be creating a sound that some love to hate (see the “Random Internet Dweller” quote series on their myspace page), but let’s face it… what progressive bands don’t? In my opinion, Melos have managed to strike a very convincing balance between technical skill and affective melody, while many progressive bands often lose sight of the latter in pursuit of virtuosity.
There were definitely some tough choices that had to be made as I narrowed these down, and this list just wouldn’t feel complete if I didn’t include these awesome EPs. Honorable mentions:
Look for a list of my favorite full-length albums of 2007 next…
Pardon the short hiatus (I blame summer school and a certain bespectacled wizard)… this particular post is a bit overdue anyway, but I’ve finally gotten around to compiling the second installment of my continuous promotion of Japanese rock.
9mm Parabellum Bullet, who hail from Yokohama, are one of the better newcomers in the Japanese indie scene. You’d figure these guys, a hook-heavy indie band, might be inappropriately named… and they probably would be if they didn’t churn through their catchy, punk-laden indie rock with the intensity of a fired bullet. So far they’ve just released a series of EPs (three), though the latest is really more of an expanded single — containing two new tracks, with a few rerecorded songs from the previous EPs tacked on (though some are better than the originals).
Their first — and at seven tracks, their longest — release, Gjallarhorn, brims with youthful prowess and energy. A nearly immeasurable amount of catchy melodies are framed with a lot of heavily distorted guitars and, as a result, the most intense moments of the album are often the grittiest. While Gjallarhorn is probably their best work, Phantomime (the second EP) is also worth a listen. It basically follows the same formula, but adds a bit more serious riffage. I’d recommend checking out these samplings from each album and take advantage of being able to pick up the first two EPs on the cheap, which is somewhat of a rarity if you live outside Japan.
One thing that will become apparent to readers of this blog is that I have a soft spot for Japanese bands. In fact, in the case of some bands I may reach near obsessive levels of ardency. Though there are many deserving Japanese artists that do receive attention from some Western media (Boredoms, OOIOO, Cornelius, Shugo Tokumaru, etc.), many others are also inevitably ignored. I hope to discuss all kinds of Japanese music here, while paying particular attention to bands that don’t get the attention they should. The first band I’m featuring is Sparta Locals, a fantastic post-punk band with an uncanny ability for crafting sweet melodies and incredible guitar interplay.
Kanashii Miminari / Second Fanfare
Sparta Locals are a productive band, having released six full-length albums in just five years. They started strong in 2002 with Kanashii Miminari, probably one of the better debuts of any J-Rock band. However, the first album I heard was the even stronger Second Fanfare, in which they truly staked their claim as one of the most interesting rock bands in Japan. On this sophomore effort Sparta Locals noticeably expound upon their original sound, flushing out even stronger melodies and impressive angular guitar work. “Kogane Wave” still blows me away. Itou Shinichi outdoes himself as he lays down not just one, but several fantastic guitar leads that evolve and transform, carrying the song to completely unexpected levels. I seriously don’t think I could ever get tired of this song.
Sun Sun Sun / Yume Station
I was excited for the follow up to Second Fanfare, but not necessarily optimistic. It was one of those albums you just didn’t expect to surpass its predecessor. Yet, somehow Sparta Locals managed to put together an album that is easily their definitive full-length. If Second Fanfare was a significant progression from their debut, then Sun Sun Sun was at least an equal step forward from Second Fanfare. Sparta Locals cite Gang of Four and Television as their main influences and while this is more evident on Sun Sun Sun than any of their other records, the album still feels surprisingly unique. Nearly every aspect of this release is close to flawless, and again the guitar work helps separate Sparta Locals from their peers. It’s devastating… from the intricate pop-sweetness of “Tokyo Ballerina”, to the Televisionesque layered solos at the close of “Boku no Poppa”, to the absolute onslaught of “Peace”. Sun Sun Sun may sound a bit like dance-rock revival on its surface, but don’t write it off as such — it has more depth and more to appreciate.
I honestly tried to maintain reasonable expectations for the material that was to come after Sun Sun Sun; how could Sparta Locals hope to ever follow up such an album? It seemed inevitable that any attempt to do so would only result in disappointment. And then about one month before the release of their fourth full-length, Dreamer, I heard the Yume Station single. I couldn’t believe it. Not only did their sound again seem to be evolving, but both of the songs on the single were two of their best yet. In fact, these songs hinted that Dreamer was to be their definitive work. While maintaining elements of their sound on Sun Sun Sun, they seemed to be reintegrating them into a surprisingly fresh, if somewhat more conventional, pop sound. It all made such perfect sense, making it seem that perhaps Sparta Locals had planned this logical progression from the beginning.
Dreamer / Self-Titled / Maboroshi Forever
However, Dreamer did not turn out to be the masterpiece that I had hoped. On the contrary, it was the first Sparta Locals album that was actually disappointing. Even in the absence of the expectations created by Sun Sun Sun and Yume Station, it probably wouldn’t have been considered anything more than mediocre. Though they had managed to adopt a new sound for much of the album, it was not particularly compelling. The shining pop of “Yume Station” is replicated only on the decent “Rock & Honey”, while the majority of the album is made up of slower, pensive songs that mostly fail to grab the listener’s attention. Even more troubling, “Get Up!” and “Party” feel like rejects from the sessions for the previous album — suggesting that the creativity of Sparta Locals had begun to wane. Sadly, this has proven to be true, as they have yet to emerge from this slump. Last years self-titled effort felt a bit phoned in — they returned to a more energetic pop sound, but it just wasn’t characterized by the strong melodies and song writing fans of the band have come to expect.
However, on April 4th they released their sixth full-length, Maboroshi Forever, and the word is it’s the strongest release of their “pop phase”. While that may not be saying much, perhaps Sparta Locals still have one or two good albums in them. I suppose we’ll just have to wait and see… though I can’t imagine them creating anything that could approach the quality of Sun Sun Sun or Yume Station.
Bonus: Check out the first video from Maboroshi Forever, a satisfying live version of the title track: