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Make Believe Melodies For November 13, 2023
She Shaped Modern J-pop...Where Does She Go Now?
Reol — BLACK BOX
The sound and attitude of modern J-pop wouldn’t be possible without Reol. She’s a pop pioneer quite literally, as she was playing with ideas on the frontier well before they became the basis for Japan’s current biggest acts. She emerged from the world of Vocaloid, but as an Utaite, covering songs originally composed for synthesized voices. She pivoted to pop in the mid 2010s, taking lessons learned from online spaces (and collaborators like Vocaloid producer Giga…now working with contemporary big names) but presenting them in a way with clear mainstream ambition. She’s done well for herself, but it’s artists coming after her from the same space…and clearly influenced by her…such as Ado and Eve who have signaled a J-pop epoch shift. She was out in front of it first.
So…what do you do when the trails you blazed become the primary paths for pop? You keep exploring. Reol’s BLACK BOX is the sound of an artist in constant search of new sounds to play around with, this time linking up with domestic names long helping to shape her sound while, most notably, looking beyond her home for new backdrops.
There’s flashes of the familiar across BLACK BOX, from a Kenmochi Hidefumi produced song with a big Hidefumi-flavor to it (above), to a particularly rattling sonic boom courtesy of Masayoshi Iimori (“Scorpion”). She even links back up with Giga, though the resulting “DDD” ends up being far and away the worst song here, split between FAKE TYPE goofiness and BLACKPINK attitude, neither quite fitting Reol. Still, even something I read as a misfire has its place on an album all about highlighting Reol’s sonic curiosity. There’s bursts of electric guitar, enka-style vocal delivery, zero-gravity balladry, drum ‘n’ bass skitters colliding with shamisen, and so much more.
Part of what I find thrilling about BLACK BOX is how in her efforts to expand her artistry, Reol continues to figure out how sonic developments can fit her, rather than how she can fit into global sounds. She works with two British producers here — the opening pair of songs are shaped by Geek Boy Al Swettenham, while LDN Noise handles the synth-pop dash of “secret trip” — but is not forcing herself to change how she operates in quest of greater global attention or a Billboard cover. She’s playing with sounds new to her, seeing how she can make them her own and pushing herself in the process. The whole time, she sounds confident as hell, boasting about how she looks like a million dollars and just generally knows how good she is. She backs it up on a set reminding of how restless she is. Listen above.
FANCYLABO — “Brand New World”
Retro vibes can’t be smothered onto a song, but rather brushed on as not to overpower the music. Night Tempo’s Showa-idol-revival project FANCYLABO has, until now, been a little too reverent to old ideas, but “Brand New World” marks a breakthrough for the project. First off, it’s slow, noteworthy coming from a foundational pillar of future funk. But more importantly, the group gravitates towards a light new jack swing tempo, punctuated by modern touches (vocal filters, skittery percussion). It’s a nice out-of-time piece, rather than a diorama. Listen above.
GO TO HELL — Orera No Machi Ga Me Wo Samasu
Nothing wrong with looking backwards, though, and seeing how the songs of yesteryear could be re-imagined for now. The wonderfully named GO TO HELL offers modern band interpretations of Showa-era songs, but we’re talking like pre-Bubble Showa. The group’s take on the 1963 title track isn’t a radical transformation, but rather applying a new texture to it, swapping out cheery music hall energy for Setagaya indie vibes. Get it here, or listen above.
Fake Creators — “Star Racer”
Everyone could use a little bleary-eyed electronic surge to start the week. Listen above.
TONFA — TONFA EP 4
Electronic duo TONFA offers swift dancefloor release on its fourth EP. Falling somewhere between the sensual footwork of PICNIC WOMEN and the more delirious tracks of a Guchon, TONFA EP 4 uses sped-up vocal samples set against speedy production to deliver pure night-out fantasia. Get it here, or listen above.
xiexie — “Green/FILM_SONG.”
Some times, you gotta call your shot. This is emerging rock band xiexie flexing their cinematic bonafides, with a slow-burning number begging for end-credits placement. It comes surrounded by bedroom fuzz, though, which helps this avoid sounding too polished, making it much more emotionally resonant. Listen above.
♡☆♪ — HIJKLSM
That’s Love Star Music, if the symbols throw you off.
This fledgling project comes closer than any I’ve encountered to doing something I’ve been desperate to hear — idols doing “drift phonk,” an Eastern European electronic sound that sounds, and I mean this in all definitions of the word, sick. Mostly, I love when manifestations of J-pop’s cuddliest side engage with trendy and/or ugly sounding styles. Unfortunately, they don’t actually sing over anything resembling that grim genre1, though they throw in a few instrumental moments throughout HIJKLSM to signify they are “with it.” Yet the trio are happy to embrace a wide spectrum of brain-pounding electronic sounds, from Eurobeat to shots-consumed EDM. If you ever liked “future bass” and spent hours on SoundCloud falling down rabbit holes of the Technicolor stuff, this group has some hits for you (“LSM THEME” being a highlight). More than anything, it’s playful and up for having a fun and dumb (complimentary!) time. Listen above.
Kohaku Special Post!
This year’s Kohaku Uta Gassen lineup comes out in…literal minutes! I’ll do a special bonus post with ~ hot takes ~ related to the lineup tomorrow…the twist being it will be for premium subscribers. Sign up now to hear me get angry about the inevitability of Mrs. Green Apple!
Oricon Trail For The Week Of October 30, 2023 To November 05, 2023
Back in the day, the Oricon Music Charts were the go-to path to music stardom in Japan. Acts of all sorts traversed these lands, trying to sell as many CDs as possible in order to land a good ranking on a chart choosing to only count physical sales, even as the Internet came to be and the number of versions offered for sale got ridiculous. Today, with the country finally in on digital, these roads are more barren and only looked at by the most fanatic of supporters needing something to celebrate. Yet every week, a new song sells enough plastic to take the top spot. So let’s take a trip down…the Oricon Trail.
Lienel — “kimito” (16,329 Copies Sold)
In my darkest hours, I consider ending Oricon Trail. “It’s just Johnny’s! A few -46 groups scattered in! Do I really have to listen to ENHYPHEN???” But then you get a week like this one, where the top physical-only seller moves mere peanuts in the grand scheme of things, but none of the fandom-fueled regulars usually taking this spot remembered to put something out. This is what I live for!
Wilder still, I think I like “kimito” significantly more than most J(and K)-male-group songs as of late. Lienel is a fledgling project out of STARDUST PROMOTION — so, no slouches — that debuted earlier this year. This number has an awkward, airy quality to it (I see you, SoundCloud-circa-2015 vocal sample up front), rejecting the boring flex-for-flexing-sakes attitude of so much modern male pop music in favor of something a little more slippery and vulnerable. Listen above.
News And Views
Junko Ohashi — popular singer who started her career in the 1970s and kept at it for decades after, and who is a representative artist of “city pop,” particularly through her ~ eternal jam ~ “Telephone Number” — died this week. While I reason wasn’t given, Ohashi, 73, had been battling esophageal cancer.
As the linked article notes, Ohashi’s sudden death comes in a year that is starting to feel like Japan’s equivalent to when David Bowie and Prince, among others, passed on in close succession. Lots of big names have died in 2023 — two members of Yellow Magic Orchestra, HEATH of X JAPAN, BUCK-TICK’s Atsushi Sakurai, singer-songwriter Shinji Tanimura, I’m sure I’m forgetting some prominent names here — and it’s really hitting the nation’s listeners hard. But…at least we have art to remember them all by.
I haven’t written about NiziU’s “HEARTRIS” for a variety of reasons — weird identity issues I’m not sure I can wrestle with and / or will try to figure out in future posts, the strange state of the K-pop industry in late 2023, the shame I felt in it taking me three listens to realize “oh….like Tetris!!!” — but it’s an important song for sure. Besides the video being a golden example of the “cool, Japan!” principle (anime), the single took first place on South Korea’s Show Champion, making it the first time a non-Korean group has won the position. While more complicated than, say, the popularity of YOASOBI in South Korea (people love anime / love music that is different than whatever NCT is being tossed at listeners), it’s another example of how the exchange between the two countries continues to open up.
311 and Man With A Mission…together at last. Views: I can’t think of a tour I’d want to avoid more.
FEMM heading to Saudi Arabia…honestly, I’m stunned how more Japanese artists aren’t getting flown out there at this point, given the success of various Gulf Investment Fund anime projects.
I’m not an “AsaDora” person, but the latest NHK series Boogie Woogie is music related…and very popular!
Uhhhhh click through to watch
J-Pop Into Your Mouth! The New Snack Review Corner!
Welcome to J-Pop Into Your Mouth2, where I review J-pop related snacks when they become available. This will primarily be a bonus for paid subscribers, so if you want to see me whine about various YOASOBI curries, time to go premium. But here’s a special free edition.
Most pop-food collaborations in Japan lean towards younger artists. You’ll see YOASOBI ramen, BTS gum, NiziU conbini sweets, Ado Sweets Paradise items and so on. Older acts aren’t getting the novelty eats treatment nearly as much. No one has made a Keisuke Kuwata dreamsicle or anything.
So imagine my surprise to see Misia staring at me from the Lawson chip aisle. Her visage appears on the bag for Koikeya’s new “Soul Jazz Burger” flavor, made in collaboration with the J-pop staple. An instant buy off the shelf, even if the idea of a “Soul Jazz Burger” remains very vague.
I guess the “soul” here is a hearty bacon flavor. The Misia chip most closely resembles the occasional “steak” flavored snacks big-potato puts out. This one has a little more heat too it, which is very welcome. Overall, a bit one dimensional flavor wise — I get that “bacon” is less snazzy than “Soul Jazz Burger,” but I’m expecting a lot more with the latter — but this chip does do the one thing quite well.
Note: There appears to be a Soul Jazz Burger in Brazil. I want to eat here.
Written by Patrick St. Michel (email@example.com)
Twitter — @mbmelodies
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Wildly…Stray Kids do on their latest single, and I love it, the first time I’ve really been wowed by anything from them, while also being impressed with the boldness to tackle that.
I’LL WORK ON IT