Last year’s Lick The Star E.P. showcased Nu Clear Classmate not as an up-and-coming buzz band bloggers should check in with when a full-length dropping, but as a group with a fully-formed sound all their own. In just under 20 minutes the Tokyo duo breathed legitimacy into the idea of “suicide pop,” a phrase coined by Nu Clear Classmate that meant nothing until they willed it into being. They ended up defining it as such – relatively simple pop structures smothered in buzzing synths, pounding waves of noise that turned upbeat numbers (“Blank World,” “I Know I Know”) into delirious life affirmers and more downcast tracks (“Causeless Pain”) into bleak barrages. It was a debut that seemed years ahead of what one would expect, a young musical outfit evolving on the spot into something they could call their own.
So here we are in 2011 greeted by the first post Lick The Star song by Nu Clear Classmate, and a surface listen indicates they’ve already morphed into a new sound. The claustrophobic electronics get replaced on “Sleeping Under The Maypole” with more wide open spaces and twinkly noises ripped from Duck Tails for the NES. The five tracks on Star always sounded poppy, but “Maypole” flirts with actual, no-bones-about-it funkiness. Initially “Maypole” signals yet another huge step forward from a very young duo.
Yet “Maypole” really isn’t a major shift as much as it’s Nu Clear Classmate slightly inverting their style. This isn’t the sort of spine-aching twist 2011-hyped acts like Toro Y Moi (going from chillwave by way of Dilla to hazy funk) or Smith Westerns (inaudible shit to being actually listenable) made en route to Best New Music labels – “Maypole” instead finds the duo making what is at its core a very NCC-sounding song but while embracing more silence. Oddly enough, the most recent sonic example of this move comes from another Japanese group that just happens to be on the other pole of notoriety – Perfume’s “575” similarly made a lot of room without sacrificing what defined them, in their case pure pop pleasure. “Maypole” works in the same way, down to the balancing-act nature of this being both the sexiest and saddest NCC have sounded.
The sadder songs on Star conjured up images of being cooped up in a tiny Tokyo apartment, the lack of space making a typical afternoon existential crisis all the more cloistering. “Maypole,” appropriately, changes the setting to an open field, the vast space now magnifying solitude. The group’s synth still lurks in the background here, bubbling up at various times to add tension. Yet for the most part “Maypole” never sounds like it’s being choked, a more open-air version of what NCC introduced on Star. Also unchanged are the vocals, here clearly falling into the downtrodden/wistful camp, delivered behind an effect that transforms lead singer Chick into a mermaid. This ends up being the song’s greatest strength – on Star the singing always seem a little too battered back, but here they get all the attention and they wow, sounding as constricting as any synth NCC could have mustered up. The backdrop might look a little different, but “Maypole” is the same, excellent NCC.