Hotel Mexico have so much exciting news to share with the world today, that a cover of a song by Ed N.Stead (an artist who, based on a Google search, released one album) isn’t the most exciting. The Kyoto group have launched a new web page which looks quite nice, and even better, they have a show lined up in America for this August. They will travel to New York to play The Knitting Factory in Brooklyn (look here), so if you are in the area you best go to watch them and make me immensely jealous. And yeah, a cover of a song from an obscure artist, which is fine and all too. Watch that above.
So this is sort of a big deal – three of the heaviest hitters in Japanese indie music today (which is to say, they are all signed to international labels of some sort) have collaborated on a song called “Yubiwa,” which is basically The Avengers of shadowy sounds from Japan. The players: Kyoto’s Hotel Mexico (on Double Denim), Tokyo’s Jesse Ruins (of CUZ ME PAIN and Captured Tracks) and Sapphire Slows (Not Not Fun). The obvious fear going into a track like “Yubiwa” is that too many home-recording artists could spoil the song, what makes each of these acts stand out would end up lost in an effort to democratize everything. Impressively, that doesn’t happen on “Yubiwa” – each artist stands out, their skills combining just right to make a pretty exceptional song. Hotel Mexico brings the most obvious style, as “Yubiwa” features real guitar and drums, sounds rarely floating around in the ethers Sapphire Slows and Jesse Ruins create. Slows’ voice haunts the back of the song, and she also contributes the same ambient touch that makes her swirling songs so compelling – they are mysterious yet inviting at the same time. Jesse Ruins, meanwhile, bring the dreamy electronics to “Yubiwa,” their synths grazing the song, adding a touch of out-body-experience to the track. It’s a fantastic song, one summing up what each of these artists has done so well over the past two-and-a-half years. Listen below.
“Wolves Running Through The Desert,” the B-side to Hotel Mexico’s forthcoming Double Denim single, shouldn’t be such a slippery song to think about. “A Space In The Loveless Field,” the A-side, seemed more demanding of introspection, the track’s slowly unfolding structure and general ennui the stuff that usually trips one up when trying to describe a piece of music. “Wolves” is much more straightforward – slightly faster pace, attention-grabbing guitar riff, the Kyoto group’s signature high-pitch vocal delivery. It gets a little more shimmery near the end (more on that in a bit) but for the most part feels like one of the group’s most immediate offerings to date.
Naturally, all of that leads to the revelation that this has been a slipper song to think and write about, because Hotel Mexico turn “Wolves” into such a dreamy affair that what seemed relatively uncomplicated suddenly starts looking like a mirage. “Dreamy” isn’t a new adjective to throw around these guys, but I’m using it not to stand in for the similarly overplayed (guilty as charged) hazy but because “Wolves” reminds me of driving down a freeway in August and thinking there are puddles all over the road. That central guitar line conjures up mental images of the Taj Mahal during a particularly sweltering summer, and then Hotel Mexico lets everything get a little wild with the back half of the track, where voices float away from bodies and pop up in the most unexpected places. A friend who also listened to this song said the reason he likes Hotel Mexico is because they manage to be both accessible to everyone while also adding enough experimental touches to their songs to make listeners go “whoa.” “Wolves” showcases that opinion perfectly. Listen here, or below.
This weekend, American dance-punk artist Pictureplane will play two Japanese shows this weekend, one in Tokyo on April 6 and one in Osaka on April 8. In advance of that, I wrote about Pictureplane for The Japan Times today. You can read that here.
The shows themselves look to be really good too. The Tokyo show, at Seco Bar, also features CUZ ME PAIN acts Jesse Ruins (who just released a heavyweight remix) and Faron Square who will be playing new material. The Osaka show, at Nuooh, includes Hotel Mexico and Seiho on the undercard.
And at long, long last, Kyoto’s Hotel Mexico get some foreign love. The group have a new single coming out on Double Denim Records…who also put out Jesse Ruins’ first Western release…called “A Space In The Loveless Field.” Considering that Hotel Mexico have been catching the eyes of various overseas blogs…Gorilla Vs. Bear, Pitchfork, Altered Zones (R.I.P.)…it’s about time they get a deal like this. Glasses up.
Yet what makes this extra special is that “A Space In The Loveless Field” stands as one of the band’s best songs to date. Double Denim themselves write that this track “recalls the glow of Ariel Pink at his poppiest.” I mean, I’m not gonna poke their PR department in the ribs here, but Hotel Mexico already did that last year with “Dear Les Friends,” which drew a lot of inspiration from Pink’s Before Today (his poppiest). Pink has never sounded as rich as Hotel Mexico do on “A Space.” The group rarely come across this clear, the guitars and drums free of the swirly feedback of earlier songs. Only the main vocals remain a bit obscured, but even at their most nasally, Hotel Mexico add a pretty clean line of harmonizing vocals behind it, a trick that reminds me of the powerful build of breakthrough single “It’s Twinkle.” What makes “A Space” the best they’ve done since “Twinkle” is what Hotel Mexico wring out of the instruments. Whereas some of their songs can dissolve into a sonic cloud akin to staring at a ceiling fan for too long, “A Space” lets the instruments…especially the minor-key guitar on the back half…stick out. Like “Twinkle,” “A Space” engages directly. Double Denim have themselves a gem. Listen below.
A lot has changed for Tokyo’s CUZ ME PAIN label since they released their first compilation a few years back. AAPS called it a day, Jesse Ruins grabbed some blog love and got picked up by Captured Tracks, Lovers In The Wind remain a complete mystery and Melancholic Masculinity just goes by Masculin now. In early March, the label plans to drop compilation number two, featuring a lot of familiar faces from the still-fascinating shadowy Tokyo scene and a few new ones as well. The major projects that laid down the foundation for CUZ ME PAIN – Jesse Ruins, Nites, Faron Square, :visited, Atlas Young, The Beauty and Masculin – each show up on this new release. Sapphire Slows drops by for one song, while label friends Hotel Mexico and Magical Gang contribute remixes of a Nites song and a :visited jam respectively. Yet it wouldn’t be CUZ ME PAIN without a little mystery (or lack of information, at least), and that’s where two new acts enter the picture. Naliza Moo and Scum Boys both bring a track to this comp, but I couldn’t tell you much about them. Listen to a preview of each song on this release above.
Booze has always been prevalent when I’ve seen The Brixton Academy live, the band popping open bottles of Champagne to share with the crowd or downing shots post-set. Yet their January 28 show at Shibuya’s Womb – which, for the uninformed, is the place those deaf kids make out in the film Babel – was soaked in more alcohol than usual. Seeing every member of the group pop open a bottle of bubbly, corks comically smacking into Womb’s extravagant disco ball, or the band’s guitarist drunkenly spank away at his bongos seemed appropriate given that this was the final stop on their Bright As Diamonds tour, one last gig in front of a hometown crowd.
Yet this sea of liquor flowed because this turned out to be the final Brixton Academy show featuring the band’s current incarnation – the group announced midway through that this show would be there last, to a girl-heavy wave of shock. Although a three-person version of the group will play a show in March, post that the members will remain in music, but in what form they don’t know. With this news, though, a typically drunk Saturday show turned into one last hurrah for one of the best live groups in Japan today.
This impromptu finale boasted a pretty great undercard, too. Kyoto chillwavers Hotel Mexico opened everything up with a whirling set that came with an appropriate light show. Live…and blessed by Womb’s tip-top sound system…the group sounds bigger live, a song like “Dear Les Friends” even stronger than in recorded form. Nagoya’s Orland followed, a mess of 80’s synths tripping over one another to create deliberately nostalgic dance music (the fact half of the original Tron played out behind them drove the point home – we are Orland, and we love the 80s). The group is fine, but sharing a bill with similar-sounding Brixton Academy exposes their biggest weakness – whereas Brixton place earnest words over their New Wave hodgepodge and come off as almost embarrassingly sincere, Orland just sound like the music you sometimes hear in a Tim And Eric sketch.
The Telephones, out of place on this bill both in terms of sound and popularity, gesticulated all over the stage next, an endless barrage of aggressive rock guitar, shouting and posing. The group is undeniably energetic, as evidenced by the sort of crowd I would have loved to be in the middle of when I was 19. Yet, as a cynical 20-something, I heard a group with buckets of energy and like three song blueprints done over and over again. Canopies And Drapes came next, joined by several members of The Brixton Academy. When I saw her in Nagoya in November, her set surprised me because she (and Brixton) were able to turn three-fourths of her dreamy music into something funky. That Nagoya show was great – her set at Womb, not quite as memorable. Opening with her two weakest live numbers (the shoegazey “Stars In Bloom” and “Live In The Snow Globe,” the one instance where injecting funk into a song detracts from it, as “Snow Globe” is a lyrical wonder), things got better with the jaunty “Perfect Step,” and she has a great set closer with “Sleeping Under The Bed” which, moment of honesty, I have yet to get sick of.
Yet this Saturday night belonged to The Brixton Academy. At this point, I’ve seen them three times in the past three months, and their show barely changes each time – they open with the bongo-assisted “Neons Bright” from last year’s Bright As Diamonds before diving into the best cuts from that LP and their debut Vivid, with the long-burning “Nightclub” popping up near the end of the set. Yet despite knowing what to expect, Brixton Academy’s skill and energy turns what should have been choreography by now into a still-captivating show. “In My Arms” remains delirious, ”Youth” still demands fists pumped into the sky and “So Shy” remains a slice of triumphant sadness.
This wasn’t just another (great) Brixton Academy show, though, but a surprise finale. Once the sounds of shock faded, the remaining songs seemed more urgent, imbued with something special that words can’t really capture (uhhhh you had to be there?). They dusted off older songs I hadn’t heard at the previous two shows – they broke out songs I’ve never heard period – and gave the crowd what they wanted. Corks flew, an encore happened and then they left the stage for the last time.
So what’s The Brixton Academy’s legacy? Two albums ranging from “pretty good” to “great,” an EP and some singles, not to mention an incredible live show. Vivid, their debut, stands with any 80s-aping album of the last half of the decade, while we named “So Shy” the best song of 2010 and stick by it fully. They did pretty decently for a band their size in Japan, but The Brixton Academy always struck me as a group that could have gotten a lot of looks from the West too, given the 80’s sound and earnestness. Yet they never really did, unfortunately, but leave behind a great collection of music and, for me personally, great memories of wildin’ out at a tiny Nagoya club. They deserved those drink for sure Saturday night.
Hey, someone uploaded a video of the band playing “So Shy” at this even!
J-Pop remains an easy punching bag in 2011 because most of the criticism lobbed at Japanese mainstream music ring true. A large chunk of acts crowding the upper reaches of the Oricon chart are 90’s holdovers with appropriately bland tunes. Labels seem to be in an arms race to see who can put out the safest, blandest pop, often manifest as the J-ballad, an over-dramatic attempt at emotional payoff built by robots lacking souls. Yet the J-ballad perseveres, and as long as goopy slow burners continue selling well, expect them to never leave or evolve into something with real heart.
Michiyo Honda imagines a better way with “Paradise Lost.” Her best ballad of the year mixed the Disney-ready formula with the insides of an iPad, circuit boards buzzing off as she sang the songs lonely verses. This electronic edge – late in the song, even her voice turned to radio static for a split second, making it seem like she might be a malfunctioning android – made “Paradise Lost” just sound better than most ballads. Yet the real revelation here comes from the emotions Honda wrings out of this song, moving from downtrodden wistfulness to a climax that feels like sun bursting through concrete. Countless J-Ballads might come out in the future and each one might be as soulless as the last, but as long as people like Michiyo Honda keep making torch songs like “Paradise Lost,” hope remains.
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29. andymori “Kakumei”
You can get a lot done in about two minutes. Sharpen a pencil. Pour yourself a cup of coffee. Floss. Lead a game-winning drive down the New Meadowlands field (Aaron Rodgers only apply). You can also render most of the music in your back discography…and most of the future stuff too…plodding, careening into a style that fits you so well without sacrificing any of the hooky qualities your loyal fanbase has come to love. You don’t even need five of those seconds, keep them! Sure there might be a few drawbacks, like making most of the material on your new album sound phoned in, but man the potential seeping out. Or, you know, you can floss.
28. She Talks Silence “Vanished Vacances”
I love talking about the emotions She Talks Silence conjures up, yet sometimes lost in all of the tissue-filled confessionals and opportunities to use David Lynch as an adjective is just how good and catchy STS’ music comes across. “Vanished Vacancies” features everything that makes the pure sonic element of the Tokyo duo appealing, journal talk made unnecessary. At its core “Vacancies” is indie-pop, same as the group itself, dealing in the same fuzz-smeared style of twee favored by seminal outfit Black Tambourine. The wood-block clapping gives “Vacancies” a nice layered feeling, while everything else is classic STS songwriting. Including the final passage, the requisite creep-out portion where the song almost turns violent, this extended outro serving as the track’s unsettling element. It’s a winning formula my mind can enjoy while my heart cries out words onto Tumblr while clutching a Kirin.
27. Greeen Linez “Street Dancer”
I made my DJ debut this year…sorta. OK, I DJed a friend’s wedding party, and by even claiming I “DJed” it feels like I’m a teen who assembled a Lunchables Pizza Kit and declared himself a “chef” (which, hey, another past transgression). My pal…who did the banner for this feature, check him out he rules…gave me a bunch of songs to play but also told me I could buff out his list by playing “whatever you want.” Upon hearing that, the geek in me who always wanted to pretend to be a DJ salivated at the chance to work an actual real party. Maybe one of the attendees needs dudes to “spin” (ha look at me using that term when all I’ve got is a MacBook and Mixxx) at some event and my really great mix (ha!) would wow them. I poured over my iTunes library like I was writing a thesis paper.
I finished selecting songs the day before the party, and one of the tracks I couldn’t wait to play was Greeen Linez “Street Dancer.” Whereas other inclusions seemed a bit risky – what if people don’t like KARA? what if they don’t like Broadcast? – “Street Dancer” seemed as safe as could be, seeing as it sounds like drunken party fun, all slippery and ecstatic and just tough to not grin along with. I knew it did a bunch of stuff the other dance songs I loved in my did, so this seemed safe. The night arrives, and after an hour and a half I drop “Street Dancer” and…people seem to like it! I mean, the folks there were mostly talking and taking photos of one another but, a few people nodded ahead with the song so I took that as a victory. Dream achieved!
Then the restaurant staff hurried over to tell me they needed to play a specific “wedding mix” they made for the cake unveiling…which turned out to just be The Drums’ self-titled album c’mon man!…and Greeen Linez ended prematurely. Still, for giving me a brief illusion of coolness, “Street Dancer” shall live forever on this list. Oh, and also because it is a sick song.
26. Towa Tei “The Burning Plain”
The central LOL of “The Burning Plain” is that the title comes from the name of the film the song’s narrator and object of affection decide to watch together in favor of going to a party. A cute detail underlining why former Deee Lite member Towa Tei’s song sounds so great in 2011. His production gets forced to handle a proper pop song instead of his more familiar world of dance, and he makes it count, throwing in jazzy horn touches and all assortment of bright electronic noises rivaling the LEGO interior design seen in the great video. The featured vocalists put it over, Yellow Magic Orchestra’s Yukihiro Takahashi takes off his digi mask to sing the majority of the track, while Kiko Mizuhara turns the prospect of watching a DVD at home into a must-do option with her alluring voice. Could you imagine that voice riffing on Charlize Theron with you? I’d skip a lot of parties.
25. Hotel Mexico “Dear Les Friends”
Ariel Pink gets credit for being the grandfather of chillwave, and seeing as Kyoto’s Hotel Mexico will have to wear the giant necklace declaring them “THE CHILLWAVE BAND IN JAPAN” for a long time, seems natural that they would borrow a lot of steps from one of the weirder dudes to emerge from Los Angeles. “Dear Les Friends” is Hotel Mexico’s almost too-similar tribute to Pink and his Haunted Graffiti, the entire track resembling last year’s “Bright Lit Blue Skies” save for a touch more complexity and a longer play time. Still, these guys know how to do a good take on Pink’s grungy rock, “Les Friends” blessed with a nice groove and high-pitched singing that somehow works with the accompanying glow and becomes something surprisingly catchy. Not sure if Pink plans on going away in the near future, but if he does Hotel Mexico deserve the call to fill his shoes as weirdo revivalists.
24. Honeydew “Little Rusty Lemon”
Look, I’m a complete sucker for catchy simplicity, as evidenced by several songs already unveiled and plenty more to come. Honeydew’s “Little Rusty Lemon” is about as uncomplicated as indie-pop can get – simple, bouncy melody anchored by lovely (and indie-pop appropriate) singing about cars that might be serving as metaphors for more lurid topics but based on the sense of innocence surrounding “Little Rusty Lemon” is probably just about cars. Song even has a guitar solo that should get eyes rolling but doesn’t because that guitar!. Honeydew summon the catchiest, most direct moments of Yo La Tengo and create a simple but grin-makin’ pop song out of it. Not particularly complex, sure, but everything about 2011 was already complex and confusing and at times soul crushing enough that I am overjoyed these guys recorded something so simple but so perfect. Here’s the good news in a year full of the opposite.
23. Erectricmole “Nekoyanagi”
Speaking of escapes from less than desirable worlds – Erectricmole know getting away from all trials and tribulations is only a dream away, but instead of downing Ambien the synth-pop unit create their own cotton-candy fluffy realms with a lot of chirping electronics and a pleasant enough beat. “Nekoyanagi,” the standout moment from the group’s plenty-fine debut Houka No Hirune, comes closest to imagining their synth cocoon as something that could also be defiantly pop, everything kicking a little harder (check the buzzing bass) without letting the sense of self-made wonder vanish. Best of all are the vocals, restrained enough to never out-sugar the keybaords but rather weaving through them in just the right way for maximum prettiness. Don’t even need to make your bed for this lovely little escape.
If all you know about Kido Yoji is that he’s part of 80kidz’s Kidz Rec label and has appeared on the same bill as the that throbbing-beats duo, I wouldn’t blame you for just assuming dude makes abrasive “electro” dance assuming of course you didn’t know what Google was. Yoji sounds nothing like 80kidz or “electro” or bloghouse or whatever trendy/not-trendy-anymore genre you associate with that. Rather, he’s the guy standing outside of the club, sports jacket slung over shoulder, staring at the moon and thinking wistful thoughts…before going back to dance, because Yoji wants to have fun too. “Call A Romance” is his most catchy and charming track yet, a smooth moving disco-tinged number bringing to mind early Phoenix or the more buttery parts Daft Punk’s Discovery. Yet for all the reasons to dance, Yoji still lets his aching heart spill out a bit over the strut, Yoji begging to some unnamed other “can’t you give me romance?” But he’s also smart enough to not let these raw emotions blot out “Call A Romance’s” groovin’ center. Sometimes sad people want to dance to.
21. Sapphire Slows “Spin Lights Over You”
Although not officially a member of the label, Sapphire Slows bears more than a few resemblances to the artists on CUZ ME PAIN. Both live in Tokyo, both work this “mysterious” angle that isn’t so much mysterious if you do a little bit of search-engine lifting (though to her credit, Slows has managed to conceal more than the PAIN dudes), and both record dance music filtered through an ancient copy of Nosferatu. “Spin Lights Over You” hangs with almost any (more on that one later) of CUZ ME PAIN’s 2011 output and almost feels like all the explanation Slows needs to give about how she ended up signed to Not Not Fun. Its a strange tune, party-percussion played minimally but just enough to establish something hip-shakin’, layers of bright synth fog floating over it as those vocals seemingly rise from the floor. Yet everything works, making “Spin Lights Over You” a strange siren’s song of a track coming out of a particularly rich Tokyo scene.
With that out of the way, looks like Hotel Mexico have gotten pretty comfy with Diesel. This is the second song by Kyoto’s premier chillwavers to appear on Diesel’s “Diesel:U:Music:” after the Ariel Pinked out “Dear Les Friends.” Like that song, it’s pretty easy to play glo-fi connect the dots though “We Are 69 Years Apart” isn’t quite as obvious. The gliding neon guitar recalls Ducktails circa Landscapes but that’s the only easy comparison before slipping into dangerous “sounds like chillwave” territory. This demo, though, does find Hotel Mexico letting the vocals sneak a little more into the center and…it sounds pretty good because of it! “69 Years” sounds like on of the most straightforward pop moments in the group’s young catalog, all without sacrificing the 80s-VHS feel that gained them the media attention that most likely got the folks over at Diesel to give them a listen in the first place. Go here to listen and download.
Hotel Mexico have teamed up with Diesel to…wait a sec, Diesel? The people who make jeans and goofy belts? I’ll bite my tongue and repeat the mantra “this is good for indie rock, this is good for indie rock” as I inform you Kyoto’s most well-known chillwavers have made new song “Dear Les Friends” available for download over at this Diesel music spin-off site. Stream the song or make it yours…but only for the next seven days according to the band’s Twitter. Maybe you’ll see a nice top where you are over there.
As predicted, “Dear Les Friends” sounds a whole lot like Ariel Pink’s “Bright Lit Blue Skies.” Just listen to it, then give Hotel Mexico’s newest creation another whirl. To be fair, Hotel Mexico have always sorta sounded vaguely familiar to Pink and his Haunted Graffiti so this isn’t a huge shock. The group wrap the whole bouncy number in…yeah, I’m gonna go with the cliche…a haze that makes the typically obscured vocals even more mysterious. The biggest difference between this jam and Pink’s? Length – “Dear Les Friends” runs nearly twice as long, and those extra two minutes don’t really go anywhere. A late section teases at something via the music coming to crawl and sorta just hanging there, but the band just dive back into the original thrust, riding that to the end of the song. It’s a nice little rush of a song, but probably one of the lesser tracks (not to mention the one giving into the most chillwave stereotypes) they’ve released. If you’re new to Hotel Mexico, give last year’s…and recently reissued!…His Jewelled Letter Box a spin because it takes this whole “glo-fi” thing in much more interesting places. Though that requires money, whereas this just demands a few minutes at the Diesel website. Get the song here.