Make Believe Melodies For Oct. 18, 2020

This installment — looking at some random releases from 2020 that have been on my mind

Via Mei Ehara’s Bandcamp

Mei Ehara — Ampersands

We’ve reached the point in the year where the obsessive and nerdy begin crafting their year-end lists, and create 12-month-long narratives in the process. This will be embarrassingly easy in 2020 —  the spectre of COVID-19 and months spent wrangling with it to varying degrees of severity will loom over any reflections on the year that was. This is inevitable — so, how about a slightly more fun exercise? What music from this year that fall outside that timeline has stuck around with you?

I have no idea where to place Mei Ehara’s Ampersandsin my own year-end construction. The latest from the artist formerly known as may.e is one of 2020’s best out of Japan, but does not fit in nicely among pandemic-related conversation or any other loose themes I’m currently spinning around in my head (and buddy...you know I have them whirring off in there). Even connecting it to city pop feels off, because Ehara is channeling the New Music grooves of the 1970s over the glitzy pop sheen of the 1980s, moving outside of the eye of trendiness. Maybe that’s it? Ehara crafts easy-going numbers that put the whole emphasis on her voice, an instrument that largely moves with the groove but knows when to rise up and add aching to the songs. It’s an artist burying into her own vision, and just seeing what it’s worth without worrying about whatever is happening outside of her.

Meitei — Kofu

I wasn’t a big fan of Meitei’s previous two releases. Those albums — explorations of a “lost Japanese mood” — often felt too sleepy to me, cruising ahead on nostalgia and beats built for tired teens trying to finish algebra homework (the positive Pitchfork review of Komachi correctly invokes lo-fi hip-hop beats, which for me is accurate in that both are ultimately background noise built for half interest). Kofu thankfully pokes at this idea of a pristine past that their previous works simply indulged. This is the first time Meitei has approached old Japanese sounds as something malleable, as something that is itself a mirage and can be quite unnerving. Like Omodaka before, Meitei refashions old Japanese sounds into something apt for now, in this case exploring how their haunted qualities can unnerve in the present.

Boogie Idol — Mihon No Seikatsu

If we’re all doomed to celebrate retro recreations as the frontline of music, let’s at least give ourselves over to the shiniest and sparkliest visions of mall pop out there. Boogie Idol is the rare artist with a truly unique perspective on music, drawing from the dollar bin of history and reminding of how beautiful yesteryear’s scrap pile can be. 

OOIOO — nijimusi

I’ll be honest, I though this came out at the very end of 2019, but nope! This is like a first week 2020 release, wow what a year. Anyway, hell of a record from a group that deserves more love in the experimental Japanese corner of history.

Saint Snow — “Dazzling White Town”

The definition of what K-pop is changes from month to month — I swear people were starting to champion the idea that it was a genre with its own defined sonic and visual ideas over the last two years, but then you see articles just pull the rug out from that concept in favor of “actually it is an industry.” Whatever the case, Love Live! group Saint Snow’s debut single “Dazzling White Town” clearly takes cues from modern K-pop but gets it all wrong...and ends up with something way more interesting than, like, whatever FAKY is doing right now. Those goofy “heys!” at the very beginning give it away — they listened to TWICE — but rather than go all pep, they bring in sleazy sax and what sounds like mice squeaking to create one of the more memorable J-pop singles of the year, overflowing with Eurotrash charisma and semi-rapped verses. Despite having only a passing knowledge of this titanic franchise, I keep coming back to this song for its angle on modern pop, even before the group itself had a real-world show this past weekend. Bonus points for the outfit’s whole thing being they are from Hakodate, a lovely city up north both big enough to warrant an international airport but small enough where every backdrop featured in the video for “Dazzling White Town” is a place I visited over two days in winter of 2017.

Oricon Trail For The Week Of Oct. 5, 2020 To Oct. 11, 2020

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 the 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 drip down…the Oricon Trail.

Snow Man “KISSIN’ MY LIPS / Stories” (917,842 Copies Sold)

It’s deeply strange to see a Johnny & Associates group trying to play on the international stage, but I guess Johnny Kitagawa’s death has genuinely upended how these projects work. Snow Man’s “KISSIN’ MY LIPS” wants to play in the pool of “global pop,” with its speedy tempos and speak-rap sections, not to mention a sleeker video than what I’m accustomed to from this corner of Japanese pop boy bands. Oh, and let’s not overlook it is all in English, which puts it right in line with recent top-level K-pop releases trying to make inroads abroad. It stands up well in that realm but seems behind the curve when compared to domestic hits from recent times. Smart in terms of trying to get international listeners, but I hope they dig deeper than this busy but ultimately empty number.

(“Stories” meanwhile is...a perfectly fine all-ahead rock number. Compare the two songs and see how Johnny’s views international markets compared to domestic ones...and be surprised that the latter produces the more memorable song.)

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Written by Patrick St. Michel (patrickstmichel@gmail.com)

Twitter — @mbmelodies