Tag Archives: salyu

Chat: Salyu X Salyu (Featuring Salyu, Cornelius, Yumiko Ohno And Asa-Chang)

Last year’s Salyu X Salyu project, a collaboration between J-Pop siren Salyu and inventive producer Cornelius, was an exploration of an individual, in this case Salyu herself. Long a middle-of-the-road J-Pop star blessed with some incredible pipes that seemed wasted by most, Salyu X Salyu allowed her to just let go, an artistic rebirth urged on by Cornelius’ unobtrusive sonic creations.

It’s an intensely individual project, yet that hasn’t stopped Salyu and Cornelius (real name Keigo Oyamada) from touring behind Salyu X Salyu. They assembled a Salyu X Salyu Band and have toured all over Japan and, recently, Europe, including a stop at Spain’s Sonar music festival this past June. Augustus KKB, of London outfit Kero Kero Bonito, recently talked to Salyu, Oyamada, Yumiko Ohno and Asa-Chang of the Salyu X Salyu Band on June 15, before the group played a show at London’s Jazz Cafe. Ken Kobayashi handled translation duties.

Listen to the interview above, or read a transcript after the jump.

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Make Believe Melodies’ Top 30 Japanese Albums Of 2011: 10-01

10. The Mornings Save The Mornings

The past year saw a lot of Japanese bands trying to fill one of two molds – some groups tried to capture youthful exuberance via a lot of yelping in an effort to be like early Los Campesinos!, while another batch tried fast-talking over math-ey guitar patterns like they were a younger Zazen Boys. The Mornings easily spanked all of these groups eyeing the thrown by not trying to be either…whereas bands like Sorrys! or Africaemo sometime sounded a little too calculated this past year, The Mornings pretty much spazzed out like nobody was watching and made stuff like the red-eyed convulsion “Drug Me,” which packs more energy into one minute, 34 seconds than some groups could stuff into an entire LP. Listening to Save The Mornings is akin to taking speed before work, then deciding to grab a few cups of coffee on the way and finishing off with a 5 Hour Energy you found in your desk becasue, why not? The Mornings leap from idea to idea without any second thought, tracks like “Opening Act” going from punk-injected shout-alongs to a horn-heavy freak out. The closest thing to a single here is “Amazon Surf,” which opens with what sounds like Satan’s Bubble Bobble before jettisoning into rapid-fire sing-talking which eventually turns into a chorus that practically breaks down like a Pinto making a transcontinental trip. Whereas so many releases this past year tried hard to be something they weren’t, The Mornings just were, and released this manic, shouty, constantly changing punch-in-the-face that proves being yourself trumps imitation.

9. Neon Cloud Knit

Some of the genres associated with Knit, the debut album from mysterious Tokyo project Neon Cloud:

– Ambient
– Dubstep
– Witch House
– Indie
– Electronic

Neon Cloud certainly take influences from all of these styles, yet lumping Knit into any of those boxes would be deeply misleading. Knit is a work existing outside of any one genre I could name, which explains why this three-song EP (with one remix courtesy Sun Glitters) crashes into our top ten. This is a staggeringly fresh work, a late-night record that feels appropriate in the shadowy Tokyo scene spearheaded by CUZ ME PAIN without sounding anything like any artist on that label. The world Neon Cloud explores sonically feels like a creepy late night dream, not a cold-sweat nightmare but rather a vision full of vague details that make you a little confused. The project does this by messing with the vocals, having layers of voices crawling over one another on “△” or the chipmunked singing on “□” rubbing up against regular voices seemingly imitating clocks. Knit carries an unease that seemed appropriate for 2011, a vibe broadcast most clearly on the standout “○,” where lullaby-like singing unfolded over a creepily minimal blanket of sound, peaking with a moment of pure late-night strangeness. Trying to lasso Neon Cloud towards a specific sound is foolish – just let the pretty eerieness of Knit wash over you and enjoy.

8. Oorutaichi Cosmic Coco, Singing For A Billion Imu’s Hearty Pi

Imagine finding the space alien equivalent of a CD in your backyard. You stick it in your home sound system and, miracle of miracles, it plays like a regular purchase from Best Buy. You sit back and listen, and what you hear coming out of the speakers boggles your mind. Sounds fire off in all sorts of directions while a voice sings what you assume are words, except they are in a language you’ve never heard before. Sometimes these strange vocals aren’t even sung – sometimes they transform into tribal chants, or sound like the singer just wants to hock up his insides. You recognize a few similarities between this album and Battles…which makes your conspiracy theories about Warp feel like facts in waiting…but otherwise nothing your Earthly mind can think of resembles this. A Daedelus remix appears at the end and this feels appropriate. The music stops and you don’t know whether to hand the disc over to the government or hide it E.T. like in your CD case.

Now imagine the shock you would feel when you realize a human made this, a guy named Oorutaichi from Osaka who invented his own language for his musical endeavors. Very little else in this world sounds remotely like Cosmic Coco, Singing For A Billion Imu’s Hearty Pi, an album that whips from idea to idea at a manic pace. A jawdropper like “Futurelina” zips from squawky abstraction to a chirpy bit that could be ripped from an alternate dimension Christmas special back. There is a song called “Shiny Foot Square Dance” that sounds exactly like you think it would. Yet for all the weirdness packed into this album, Oorutaichi remains highly listenable, all his eccentric leanings coming together just right to form a bizarrely captivating release.

7. Kaela Kimura 8Eight8

The contemporary J-Pop realm is overflowing with singers who didn’t start their pop-culture life as musical acts. Movie stars, TV announcers, models, the offspring of famous people – anyone in Japan can become a pop star as long as they hail from a similarly famous background. Yet, as unfair as it may seem, these sort of crossover artists rarely conjure up any sort of critical excitement, their shift into music often coming off as less pursuing a muse and more strengthening brand power. An artist like IMALU or Becky might trip over a good single here or there, and sometimes a Harajuku fashion icon manages to wrangle in a brilliant producer to work with her, but all of these ventures, regardless of final quality, sometimes feel like efforts to simply expand awareness. I don’t blame any celebrity for doing this, as that’s just what we do in this age…hell, I have two Twitter accounts and a Tumblr…but sometimes you wish someone would just pursue art for arts sakes rather than beefing up a resume.

Kaela Kimura hails from a similar background as the above mentioned pop stars, starting out as a model and morning-television host before diving into music. Her early work varies in quality from very good to disposable, and some expected her to flame out like so many idols before her in a year or two. Yet she kept going and something strange happened…she kept getting better. Her singles continually improved, peaking in 2010 with the driving “You Bet!!” And in 2011, she did what few before her ever do – she appeared as a legitimate artist with the release of 8Eight8, her best album to date. Alongside Shinobu Watanabe, she played a central role in creating this album and it shows…whereas a lot of other Japanese pop releases feel like they were cobbled together by a group of scientists in some lab, 8Eight8 is an artist becoming comfortable in her sound and just killing it.

Like previous efforts, Kimura jumps from genre to genre over the course of 8Eight8 but whereas older albums sometimes felt like calculated shots at imitating popular sounds of the day, here she trusts herself. Before, rock-pop hybrids like “Kekko,” “Hoshi No Tane” and “Moon Light” would have been set on cruise control, but now Kimura pushes forward to deliver ecstatic choruses that find her stretching her voice, the sound of confidence. Her pen works just as hard, like on “Deep Beep” where she belts out “I never wanna die / My mind is infallible” and you have to do a double take. “Utau Lala” teases acoustic ballad but flings itself into something way more fun than that. Even the silly tracks – “Lollipop” and “A Winter Fairy Is Melting A Snowman” – charm by being as colorful as a melted pack of Starburst. The title track transcends everything and is Kimura’s masterpiece. Although 8Eight8 technically flirts with all sorts of styles, it comes off as a consistent work all the way up to the final embrace of “Chocolate,” a song so warm and fuzzy it feels like returning home. It’s a well-earned ending for Kimura, who you might see selling gum while dressed as an astronaut if you go out to buy groceries anytime soon. Just remember, she’s not just a candy ad, but an artist responsible for a stunning album better than nearly everything at your local Tower Records.

6. Omodaka Sanosa

Every album before and after this one on this list deserves recognition (hence, the very existence of this year-end article), but Sanosa deserves special attention for being the most Japanese record present here. A statement like that is loaded with critical landmines…what makes music “Japanese,” and how can a white boy who didn’t even eat sushi until he was 21 declare anything to be “most Japanese”…yet Omodaka’s blending of traditional Japanese noises (folk music, enka singing) with chiptune practically seems like it could be a thesis about the classical/futuristic conflict present in modern Japanese society, pagodas and geisha standing opposite from Playstation and holographic pop stars. Whereas many artists in Japan today take cues from Western music with varying degrees of success, Omodaka owes a large chunk of his sound (and, if seen live, his image) to Japan, making him an especially unique voice documented on this album.

Sanosa gathers previously released singles and other tracks into one package, making it a bit of a compilation album complete with a glut of material – it features several remixes of original songs already on the album, and the whole shebang clocks in at over an hour. Yet this all-encompassing approach turns Sanosa into a definitive guide to Omodaka and the perfect introduction to his fusing of often sad traditional Japanese singing (usually provided by Akiko Kanazawa, who also did a song about Pokemon) with 8-bit bloopery. “Hietsuki Bushi” features the sort of ennui-laced singing I’ve only witnessed from drunk businessmen at a karaoke bar, this gorgeous crooning playing against a video-game-powered beat with hip-hop undertones. Omodaka also loves to update old songs – he transforms the Japanese New Year song “Oshogatsu” into a thumping bit of work, and he even tackles Bach’s “Cantata No. 147” and turns it into robo funk. Sanosa features plenty of other highlights – the drum ‘n’ bass workout “Brain Storm,” the alcohol-breathed twirl of “Plum Song,” the R&B leanings of “Monkey Turn,” somehow the silliest and saddest song here – yet it’s the album’s ability of showing off how elastic Omodaka’s style is. Regardless of whether you want to call this a triumph of Japanese culture, Sanosa is easily a triumph of artistic originality.

5. Cokiyu Your Thorn

The two best albums released in 2011 on Tokyo imprint Flau Records work as emotional opposites, a Yin-Yang sort of deal. Neon Cloud’s Knit EP (see #9 above) brings to mind an unsettling dream, wherein familiar places and people seem slightly off, the sort of dream causing you to wake up and check to see if everything is OK. It’s also a city album, the sound of being surrounded by mobs of people and blinking lights yet still feeling out of place, eyes straying to darkened alleys and other lonely places. Cokiyu’s Your Thorn, meanwhile, also embraces solitude but not entirely in a sad way. Her sophomore album features a few downcast tunes, but for the most part it’s as warm as a group hug, alone but content and sometimes thrilled. It’s also an album tied to nature, from samples of birds and other forest-appropriate things to the song titles themselves (“See The Sun,” “Round In Fog,” “Textured Clouds”). Whereas Neon Cloud stares at a buzzing metropolis and feels lost, Cokiyu stares at the waves massaging the coast and feels joy. Both records are beautiful in their own ways, and with Your Thorn inviting warmth ends up being the hook.

Well, inviting warmth and Cokiyu’s ability to give sound texture, the nine songs on this album demanding to be heard on headphones. The appropriately titled “Textured Clouds” switches between fluffy synth work and rumbling like thunder, while “Gloomy”…can I say “appropriately titled” again? Yet she also knows the power of her own voice, singing words in such a way on “Recall” as if she’s actually trying to force a happy memory forward, each blustery utterance of the title beckoning it a little closer. As mentioned, it’s not all joy – the drizzly “Drag The Beast” hints at some melancholy, and “Gloomy,” well, see the last sentence about it. Yet Cokiyu also makes room for moments like “With My Umbrella,” a twirly bit of minimalist Broadway full of nature noises. Your Thorn carries a vague journey theme based on the song titles, and like any good story the final act delivers the goods. Our hero emerges from “Gloomy” mist in “Round In Fog,” pushed onward by military drumming. Soon, she can “See The Sun” and at that instant she has a moment of clarity, everything ending with “Little Waves” which finds her at ease. Your Thorn wants to take you along on this journey, and it’s tough turning down an invitation so welcoming.

4. Merpeoples Metropolis

Make Believe Melodies isn’t the NBA and we aren’t handing out awards to bands because they are the “most improved.” Metropolis, the second album from Tokyo’s Merpeoples, lands here because it’s a fucking great collection of guitar-powered pop music, not because it’s the Kevin Love of Japanese indie music. All that said, I can’t stress what a surprise Metropolis was when it appeared last Spring and how over the course of eight songs Merpeoples went from an OK group to one seemingly worthy of being near the front of the line in a very crowded Tokyo scene. Last year’s self-titled release was plenty competent and featured a few thrilling moments, but for the most part was straight-ahead indie rock easily brushed off as “sounds kinda like Foals.” Merpeoples didn’t seem like the sort of band capable of great music. Yet that’s what the Love And Hates assisted “Ikenai Rouge Magic” was, and Metropolis drove the point home. So congrats Merpeoples…you are sorta like Jalen Rose.

Strangely enough, though, Merpeoples didn’t have to abandon their sound introduced last year to prompt this artistic leap forward. The majority of Metropolis still leans on interlocking guitar, frantic keyboards and generally sounding kinda like Foals (which isn’t a bad thing at all!). Yet these tracks are beefier, more developed and more willing to take interesting turns. See the title track, where the piano playing seems ready to fly off the rails and the rest of the band follows suit, teetering between math-rock focus and pure chaos. Or how much passionate “Program” sounds than anything on their debut. They also benefit from great drumming, courtesy of Reiko from Tokyo Pinsalocks, which certainly doesn’t hurt. Merpeoples refined their style on Metropolis, and what once sounded borrow receives a nice new sheen.

Yet what really pushes this album near the top of the pile and cements Merpeoples newly minted “important” status are the final three songs, breathtaking switch-ups that show the range this group concealed. “Tsukawarenai Tobira” finds them slowing down to a ballad-like crawl, yet this slow-dance speed works for them and they deliver an emotional gut-punch of a song out of what so many other groups would have reduced to saccharine dust. “Maboroshi” goes one better, imitating the structure of LCD Soundsystem’s “All I Want” (which also means it carries Bowie in its genes) but absolutely besting James Murphy in every way including in the soaring chorus department. Finally, the confetti popper that is “Ikenai Rouge Magic,” a celebration of a song channeled through a cheesy 80’s J-Pop number. Whether they are celebrating a blossoming indie scene in Tokyo as the video depicts it or just personal triumph doesn’t matter…they’ve earned the right to party after Metropolis.

3. Salyu X Salyu S(o)un(d)beams

Transcendence seemed like a bunk concept in 2011 and I doubt many folks looking at their 2012 calendar expect to suddenly rise above everything in the next dozen months. While people my age continue to wake up from the “special snowflake” line while browsing job sites during their lunch breaks, “getting by” has become the new normal and I don’t blame a soul for wanting that in a modern world where economic reports read like terminal disease diagnosis and bad news zips across our TV screens at an alarming rate. Giving up and settling seemed easier than trying to be something bigger, and I hardly blame anyone for setting ambition aside in favor of stability.

Salyu was an unlikely candidate to craft the most inspiring album in a year desperately in need of one, yet with the help of adored producer Cornelius she managed just that with the annoying to type S(o)un(d)beams. Like the best underdog stories in sports, a little context makes the payoff sweeter – Salyu is a J-Pop singer who has been kicking around for about a decade now, stumbling across a few memorable moments but mostly toiling away as the sort of act caught between credible artistry and so-so album sales. Yet those memorable moments hinted that Salyu could be so much more, like 2010’s “Atarashi Yes,” a song where Salyu’s gorgeous voice rises so high it almost seems like she’s trying to fly away. Cut to shot of her meeting inspirational coach….errr smart producer who recognizes the potential and teams up with her to craft a career-defining masterpiece, both players bringing out the best in one another.

The main sonic draw of S(o)un(d)beams is Salyu’s voice…one of the best in J-Pop…in the hands of Cornelius, who splices her up to create little Salyu choruses. Ultimately, though, this is an album in love with sound, especially that of the human voice and all it’s capable of, from the pristine prettiness of choral singing on the skeletal “Sailing Days” to the fidgety vocal strut on “Mirror Neurotic” to the slowly unfolding experiment that is the title track. Cornelius, for the most part, brings his regular cut-copy approach to producing and just plays with new elements. Salyu, though, relishes the chance to be free. “Muse’ic” sounds like artistic rebirth via a knee-shaking love of music, while late cut “Hostile To Me” gives her the backdrop to flaunt her Bjork-ness, a comparison sometimes made but here released and given the chance to shine.

S(o)un(d)beams just sounds giddy, yet the real triumph and inspiration comes from the sound of an artist stumbling across a new style and suddenly creating a work towering over everything they ever did before. S(o)un(d)beams most closely resembles another 2011 dandy, Destroyer’s Kaputt, which similarly saw sonic reinvention lead to something beautiful. The Salyu X Salyu project shows transcendence can be possible, and that’s a reminder we needed in 2011.

2. Sakanaction Documentaly

J-Pop is no stranger to criticism, but in 2011 more people than usual rushed in to kick mainstream Japanese pop in the ribs. And, frankly, it sorta deserves to be roughed up a bit. The flourishing of Korean Pop music in Japan went a long way to baiting those folks, the sleek lightness of Girls’ Generation or the R&B thrust of KARA looking like a Jetson family hover car compared to the Soviet-era tank that is AKB48. The past year overflowed with sonic abominations, grossly named pop gorgons like Sexy Zone and Kis My Ft-2 and a termite-colonies worth of AKB48 spin-off groups with monikers like No Sleeves and Not Yet. While the rest of the music world continued embracing global trends – growing interest in K-Pop, America’s obsession with Euro-club beats, whatever a Skirllex is – Japan remained huddled in the past, a queasy sound moving unflinchingly forward, propelled by the same fumes keeping SMAP standing. Coupled with an independent music scene waiting for its closeup, one had to wonder in 2011 why anyone would bother with this chart-topping pulp anymore.

Yet hope flickers on – Perfume kept on being Perfume, regardless of how badly people who probably never even saw Cars 2 wanted to crucify them, and Kaela Kimura made an artistic leap forward no one would have expected from someone who models gum. It’s Documentaly, though, that affirms not all is lost, that sometimes musicians deserving of attention get nudged into the light (Sakanaction aren’t EXILE, but this didn’t sell like brick wallets either). Five years ago people would have listened to this album and hailed Sakanaction as the Japanese Radiohead, stunned at how the group merges rock with fidgety electronic music (not to mention Documentaly’s uneasy relationship with technology and how the album hits on that feeling of alienation teenagers and music critics love). Today it’s all about breaking down the molecules – I’ve heard people compare this music to Tokyo Jihen and Friendly Fires among others, and I am just as guilty trumpeting similarities between the songs here with Underworld and, above, Radiohead. And all those similarities exist, for sure.

But when I listen to Documentaly I feel the same rush I felt when I first hit “play” on Radiohead’s Kid A, back when I was in junior high school fond of listening to Three Doors Down and Vertical Horizon. And I imagine what a Japanese kid today might feel, if somehow they bought this album on a whim at Tower Records and went in not knowing what they were going to hear. That kid probably wouldn’t pick up the “Born Slippy” vibes pulsing through “Rookie,” or that kid might never have even heard a techno-inspired dance track like the title song before. This hypothetical kid would get to “Bach No Senritsu Wo Yoru Ni Kiita Sei Desu” and pause to note how it sounds a lot like the pop the other students at his school adore, but he notices how much more exciting and strange it sounds. The kid might even well up a bit at “Endless,” because few songs over the past year were as emotional and cathartic as that one.

Documentaly stirs these teenage feelings in me, the sense of excitement of hearing something new to you for the first time and being so caught up in the moment everything you heard before sounds pathetic in comparison. I brought Kid A into this conversation earlier and that is treading on sacred ground, that album revered by music critics. Save for the fact “Ryuusen” sounds like a “How to Disappear Completely” reboot, this album sounds a lot different than that Radiohead album. Yet it also does a lot of things Kid A did – in how it fuses rock with electronic music, how it sounds like nothing else capable of being played on the radio, how it sounds so big despite the mood of the album projection isolation. And then I think back to how I had never heard electronic music until Kid A, or any music like what was coming through my cheap headphones. Soon after, I was discovering music old and new I never would have bothered to Ask Jeeves about (2000, remember) if Radiohead hadn’t hit a chord. That CD was a gateway for me, and without it I wouldn’t be throwing up words about Sakanaction at all. I listen to Documentaly and I hear something very familiar – a gateway album, and it excites me that music can still do that.

Sakanaction don’t even need all this background – Documentaly is one of the best sounding albums of the year, forward thinking for Japanese pop and just a massively emotional record. It came might close to the one spot, but falls just short – you thought this was dripping with emotion, wait for that blurb! Yet something inside me makes me feel this will one day be an album praised as vital, Japanese artists or bloggers or whatever pointing to this as their sonic wake-up call, the moment they threw that shit Breakerz CD in the trash and went outside their comfort zone. This album makes me feel hopeful about Japanese mainstream music, and just good about what great art is capable of.

1. Miila And The Geeks New Age

One sunny September afternoon I found myself standing on a bridge somewhere in Shinjuku. I was trying to find a bookstore, and as I surveyed the mess of buildings looming around me, Miila And The Geeks New Age played on my iPod. While trying to figure whether I had already passed the Family Mart near the intersection, a thought fluttered through my head – why was I here? That’s a stupid question, the more rational part of my mind blurted back, you are here to meet editors and writers from The Japan Times, and see some concerts. My brain was right – sometime in the past year, I had started contributing to The Japan Times and had begun making semi-regular Shinkansen rides to Tokyo to meet people who once only existed as newspaper bylines to me. I was even meeting bands I had only been writing about from the comfort of my rural home in Mie Prefecture, talking to artists who actually mentioned Make Believe Melodies like it was a thing, me feeling like a fiction writer suddenly meeting his characters at a Starbucks.

Then I thought some more about what led me here – how at the start of 2011 I was convinced I’d be back in America come the summer, but how (what else) a relationship caused me to flip around and suddenly seek out new English teaching opportunities in forest-filled Mie. Then more memories rushed in, how I pinballed from having a job and somewhere to live in my rural home to suddenly wanting to get the hell out of the prefecture because of (what else) the end of said relationship and suddenly I quit the gig (and burned some bridges) I hadn’t even started to hightail it to Osaka where I found a tiny apartment and another teaching job. Everything spun around as I thought about how chaotic the past year had been, and how at this very instance I was somehow in Tokyo looking for a bookstore. I snapped out of it, still unsure of where I could find English magazines.

From the sounds of friends and strangers alike, 2011 seemed like a messy year. It was an absolute whirlwind personally, and I wasn’t alone – close friends jumped from job to job, or apartment to apartment. Relationships that seemed like sure-fire locks for marriage back in university ended. Twenty-somethings like myself were undergoing radical societal changes, and plenty of folks younger and older were also being bowled ove. In Japan, chaos manifest itself in a natural disaster, the March 11th earthquake/tsunami which, in the initial hours looked like an especially grim Michael Bay film playing out on our TVs. In the following days confusion ruled, jittery news caster wearing hard hats and the Fukushima nuclear situation a total mystery to almost everyone, even seemingly the people cleaning it up. Months after, people still don’t know what’s going on, or how all of this will affect the nation’s future or psyche. The whole world seemed to be going mad – Arab Springs and Occupy Wall Streets and iPads – all of it playing out over social media that aged information at a disturbingly high rate.

Miila And The Geeks find themselves at the top of our album list because their debut album New Age served as the perfect soundtrack to this past year of madness, discombobulated and rough and never stopping for a second. Musicians in 2011 faced the world around them in all sorts of way – some retreated into dreams while others sought sanctuary in the sounds of the past, others still stirring shit up even more and screaming “swag” a lot to no one in particular. Some of the most critically lauded albums of the year aimed for pastoral beauty, bearded dudes singing about apple orchards or creating excessively pretty music that pleased the folks putting together the Grammys. Miila And The Geeks, though, stare unflinchingly at chaos, letting noise and friction and saxophone blurts run wild. This unchained rush actually reflected the world of 2011 like few other albums could.

Four paragraphs in, though, I’m about to pull the rug out from under you, a trick New Age would probably dig – Miila And The Geeks unintentionally stumbled into this context. A hefty chunk of this album can be heard on a 2010 EP, while other bits trickled out online way before any protests or earthquakes. Response album this isn’t, but rather the product of long-running artistic collaboration between singer/guitarist Moe Wadaka, drummer Kaoru Ajima and saxophonist/other stuff dude Ryota Komori.

Even when removed from the setting of 2011, the actual sound of New Age miles ahead of most artists operating in Japan and outside of it. It’s a cartoon-tornado mix of punk energy, indie-pop catchiness and no wave mayhem. All these elements butt heads throughout New Age, sometimes seemingly bound for a collision that should throw everything off the tracks but everything always holding together, Wakada’s cutting guitar and unsettling vocals pushed forward by Ajima’s pounding while everything gets caught off guard by the trio’s most distinctive sound, Komori’s possessed sax playing. For all this talk of unruliness, Miila And The Geeks stay focused enough to record stuff like the hip-swaying chug-a-lug of “Trouble,” or the one-two punch of “Want” and “Cigarette And Water” which feature weird touches but always remain accessible. Above all else, New Age is a catchy and interesting work, a mish-mash of rock styles molded into just the right structure.

Yet what cements New Age as the best of 2011 is the way it twists and turns and unsettles, an appropriate soundtrack to a year that did just the same. On early listens this album hooks you in with catchiness, but spend time with this album and start noticing how fucking weird stuff gets. Take “Alphabed” for example…first time through it’s a gusty number featuring Wakada speed-reciting the alphabet, a lyrical device only a few baby steps above reviewing the days of the week. Yet with more listens those 26 letters start to take on a new form, Wakada’s rushed delivery set over raging playing from every member making what she says sound like alien warble, like saying a regular word over and over again until it practically turns into indistinguishable molecules in front of you. The title track seems like a regular song, except everything scrambled just out of place, drums seemingly a second out of time with the guitar and voice, the saxophone swooping in like bad news. That feeling of familiar sounds being just off – and in the case of songs like “No Need” and “World End,” moving at a pace faster than Lil B’s Twitter feed – radiates throughout New Age, like staring at an online stream of someplace familiar and seeing it change rapidly in small, strange ways. While writing this, I just noticed the Doomsday Clock moved a minute closer to midnight, a piece of information bound to (or maybe already) bounce around various media platforms before vanishing, to be replaced with more soon-to-be-gone news. It almost seems like Wakada is mocking us when she sings “you were feeling next to me/waiting for the superheroes” on “Superhero” because it feels like we are waiting for superheroes…and waiting and waiting.

New Age does something very similar to what our 2010 album of the year, She Talk Silence’s Noise And Novels, did. The two records couldn’t sound more different – last year’s number one a lonely, subdued murmur escaping some Tokyo apartment, this year’s top a frenzied, energetic blast of rock with hints of Teenage Jesus And The Jerks – yet both reflected the times they emerged in so well they became extra personal. Again, I stress the music of New Age can stand on its own divorced from any context. Yet when placed against the backdrop of personal whirlwinds, national confusion or a global situation seemingly entering a new age of its own, this album becomes something special, something to cherish despite all the feelings it conjures up. This is the best album of 2011 because nothing else sounded like 2011 quite like Miila And The Geeks, a maddening year captured in 34 beautifully rough minutes.

New Salyu: “青空”

Call me cynical, but this sounds like the label-mandated “hit” Salyu probably would have to release following the staggering experimentation of her Salyu X Salyu project with Cornelius. Whereas that album remains one of 2011’s better surprises, this new song finds Salyu returning to her singular past, a near ballad full of strings and shuffling noises that makes me think of Christmas despite the fact my calendar screams “July.” It’s a return to form for Salyu, this sounding like all the non-soaring singles she released prior to her Bjork moment.

Which means the song would come off like just another waste of Salyu’s potential back in 2010. Yet here, in the summer of 2011, “青空” especially clanks because it has the unfortunate shift of following up Salyu X Salyu. Whereas two years ago this would just be boring, her new single sounds absolutely pathetic after an album where Cornelius sliced her voice up like molecules under a microscope and poked them into ear-bending patterns. “青空” is the equivalent of looking at a rock with a magnifying glass. The biggest let-down post S(o)un(d)beams seems to be Salyu’s voice. Usually her pipes could save an otherwise mediocre J-Pop number but here they sound tethered down, no longer free to take off. Again, this stinks of corporate-minded money making, a “safe” song bound to inspire some mom driving her kid to juku to…I guess buy multiple copies of it? Musically though, this is the worst sort of return to form.

Review: Salyu X Salyu S(o)un(d)beams

The Salyu X Salyu project, a collaborative effort between J-Pop belter Salyu and future-savvy producer Cornelius, showcases one of the rarest forms of the “superstar musicians team up” trope. The duo’s album S(o)un(d)beams neither consolidates one another’s strengths into a unified style…see Madvillainy or to a lesser degree the work of Gnarls Barkley…nor do they cancel one another out into a mediocre mush…hello She & Him. Rather, the individual personalities of each artist manage to shine through brightly here, the two more or less doing the things they’ve always done, now just across from one another. Instead of trying to review Salyu X Salyu as one unit, lets instead focus on how each member of this album fare and draw a grand conclusion at the end.

Cornelius Side

Many people who normally wouldn’t give a lick about Salyu or J-Pop in general seem drawn to S(o)un(d)beams because of Cornelius’ involvement. Tough to blame them – since the mid-90s, he’s been the Japanese Beck, capable of dipping into nearly any genre he wants and coming out with something sounding uniquely his own. Over the course of three albums and all sorts of collaborations, he’s established himself as one of the smartest and strangest producers in the world. Couple this with a stunning live show and a Yo Gabba Gabba! appearance and you can understand why some message board denizens declare they don’t really care about the Salyu in Salyu X Salyu.

Those folks won’t be let down…Cornelius does what Cornelius does best on S(o)un(d)beams. He’s still a man in love with sound and, more specifically, how those sounds bounce around in the listener’s head. Like his own trio of LPs, this album demands headphones, the way noises in the left and right channels play with one another and how majestic it is when they come together in the middle. The funky-bass workout of “Mirror Neurotic” recalls his own “Fit Song,” while closing number “Tsuzuki Wo” seemingly beefs up the skeleton of his Muji jingle into something too joyful to be confined to a store. “Muse’ic” becomes an instant highlight in the Cornelius cannon because of how overjoyed it sounds, his usual approach of breaking apart a song and then reconnecting it into a 3-D puzzle (glued together by fat, electro bass) sounding especially triumphant in a song celebrating the creative catharsis of music itself.

Yet here’s the thing…though this record sounds gorgeous, it’s also pretty standard Cornelius operating procedure. Beautiful, but a lot of the songs on S(o)un(d)beams could easily be slight variations on his previous work (heck, I did that with just two track above, and one seems influenced by a commercial). Most of the time, Cornelius plops snippets of sound down into the song that sound a bit out-of-place at first but eventually everything comes together Intelligent Design like into a proper song. This album is a treat to listen to, but it isn’t a massive departure for Cornelius. Which, hey, is probably a good thing but given the amount of (admittedly, Internet based) people drooling over Salyu X Salyu just because of his production, it seems weird to just celebrate this work for being another example of Cornelius being Cornelius.

To be fair, the producer does explore some new territory over the course of S(o)un(d)beams. When Salyu doesn’t sing proper words but rather just makes noises, Cornelius can take those isolated calls and create staggering soundscapes. “Utaimashou” conjures up an alien world where Salyu coos like a bird, plays backwards and at one point turns into an old robot. In terms of production alone, nothing touches the title track, one of the most daring things Cornelius has done in his career. Given a chorus of Salyus, he creates a slowly unfolding sonic vista that lasts seven glorious minutes. These two songs stand as Cornelius highlights on this album.

Still, for the most part, Cornelius isn’t revealing anything new about his sound. Even given the Siren voice of Salyu, he mostly just dices it up and double it up, treating it like another sound to carefully arrange. Not a bad thing, mind you. On S(o)un(d)beams, he’s an excellent architect doing exactly what his job calls for. He’s just not the soul of the Salyu X Salyu project. That goes to…

Salyu Side

S(o)un(d)beams is Salyu’s album, a celebration of everything great about her past work and a grand rebirth, like Lady Gaga hatching out of an egg if that actually resulted in something. To properly understand why this is, a little history lesson is in order.

Despite being the “mainstream” side of the project, Salyu never really has been an A-list J-Pop star. She first popped up not as Salyu but as Lily Chou-Chou, a fictional singer in a movie in 2000. Four years later she finally debuted as, well, herself. Her albums tend to chart well – sophomore effort Terminal remains her best-selling album having moved 87,000 units and climbing as high as number two on the Oricon album charts (the follow-up got to seven, while S(o)un(d)beams hit 12). Her singles chart all over the place though – at her peak she’s gotten as high as 10 by herself, usually following somewhere between 15 and 23 (before that, though, adjust to something like between 30 and 100). A collaboration with Bank Band titled “To U” remains her best known song, having reached the second spot on the singles chart. Salyu’s not an obscure artist, but she doesn’t demand attention like cornballs Koda Kumi or Aiko.

Her strongest tool has always been her voice, a soaring sound capable of pushing upper registers without losing any power. Last year’s “Atarashi Yes” highlights everything great about Salyu – that voice, mostly, but also the way you don’t have to know a single word of Japanese or even what “yes” means to get the emotional oooomph of the single. She’s shown flashes of the same vocal power Bjork boasts. Yet Salyu’s never had a good album to her name…”Atarashi Yes” was among a pocket’s worth of good songs on her third album Maiden Voyage, a bloated affair weighed down by half-hearted stabs at mainstream balladry. Earlier releases Landmark and Terminal don’t fare much better. Salyu’s not a top-tier pop star, but whoever puts together her full-lengths desperately want her to be. Bjork carved out an identity while still in The Sugarcubes, whereas Salyu remains caught in J-Pop R&D. Up to now, she’s mostly been a case of “what if.”

Yet here, name doubled up, she’s set free to chase her “Muse’ic” without fear of censor. Cornelius hasn’t improved on Salyu’s voice, but rather crafted a sonic world wide open for her to do her thing from all sorts of angles. It’s not perfect – at this point, it should be acknowledged the album opens with a relative thunk via the annoying “Tada No Tomodachi,” a case of both Salyu and Cornelius relying too much on the gimmick of “a lot of voices at once!”…but what artistic re-emergence is? On S(o)un(d)beams she finds someone willing to let her experiment, and she dives headfirst into an opportunity that it seems like she has been waiting a long time for.

So…whereas in the hands of a more chart-obsessed person “Sailing Days” (the latest in a string of songs finding Salyu obsessed with boats) probably would have ended up a minor-key ballad, here it’s a little shanty that turns into a crescendo of Salyu’s crashing against the shore at a dizzying rate. Cornelius steps way to the background on “Kokoro” and just lets her sing hauntingly around minimal strings. “Dorei” and “Rain Boots De Odorimashou” find Salyu having some of the most fun she’s ever had on record, playing with the extremes of her voice on both (screech-iness on the prior, calmness on the latter). “Hostile To Me” doesn’t just feature a Bjork-like title, it finally finds Salyu making something resembling a Bjork-ish ballad. It all comes back to “Muse’ic,” where she emerges from a cocoon with big bright wings and like eight mouths just ready to sing the praises of art.

It’s tempting to give Cornelius more credit than he deserves for how Salyu sounds here, since the draw of Salyu X Salyu has always been “Salyu’s voice all over the place!” He deserves a lot of praise – excellent placing of her various vocal tracks, not to mention creating the music that that allowed her to sound like this – but he’s just an arranger for the most part. Salyu is the one giving the vocal performance of her career, one that doesn’t feature anything resembling the big pay-off moments like “Atarashi Yes” but rather sees her exploring every corner of her sound.

Both Sides
Salyu X Salyu bridges the gap between experimental and accessible better than any other Japanese album so far this year, Cornelius showing off his inventive production techniques but never allowing the project to sink into needless wandering through the strange. Both artist’s involved on S(o)un(d)beams can be heard loud and clear, but they’ve come together to make one of the best albums of 2011.

Special News Round-Up For (Last) Week: Salyu, Perfume And The Mirraz

No Music Station for me to blather on about this week, so instead Make Believe Melodies has decided to open the week with a grab bag of news we didn’t get to last week but still worth knowing. With a bonus obnoxious mini review, oh boy!

Salyu X Salyu (Salyu and Cornelius) Release Video For “Sailing Days”

The latest fruits of Salyu’s work with Cornelius fall onto the ground below in the form of “Sailing Days,” a seemingly acoustic skeleton that eventually fills out quite nicely courtesy of a gorgeous chorus of Salyu’s singing off in all sorts of directions. “Sailing Days” comes with a video, full of ghostly Salyus doing that thing she does with her face where she opens her mouth really wide to sing, but it looks like she’s trying to eat a pineapple. Good song and video though.

Perfume Reveal New Singles’ Art, Involves Flippin’ Lasers

Remember in Austin Powers when Dr. Evil gets all giddy about having sharks with laser beams strapped to their heads? Well, now we can count on at least one thing way cooler than that idea…techno-pop trio Perfume being able to shoot lasers out of their fingers. That’s the cover for the “Limited Edition” version of soon-to-be-released single “Laser Beam,” a very appropriate image if I dare say so myself. You can also look at the normal version here. Scroll down, Zippy Longstockings.

One-Paragraph Review Of An Album That Came Out A While Ago – The Mirraz We Are The Fuck’n World

The Mirraz make a certain type of indie music…”indie” hear not meaning “independent” but “potentially able to lend itself to a FOX Searchlight trailer”…that manages to be plenty enjoyable while playing but completely forgettable afterward. Case in point – latest album We Are The Fuck’n World dropped in January but, following a few listens, said CD got lost in the shuffle and I didn’t think of it again until I looked at my WordPress Dashboard and saw a lack of content. Why review this, even via a half-hearted quickie, midway through April? Mostly because, while easy to forget once iTunes gets minimized, We Are sounds pretty fun. The Mirraz jump from style to style one song to the next, so though the (highlight) title track aims at being a suitable pub shout-along, the following number tries to ape U2. So it goes, each new song wheeling out a new installment of “guess the influence” while plopping down some fast-spoken vocals and usually catchy chorus. For 30 minutes, it’s a nice escape. Following that, it can be tough to remember vividly.

Required Reading

And to close out, go read this nice little write-up about 70s band Happy End’s “Haikara Hakuchi.”

New Salyu X Salyu: “Muse’ic”

Turns out the Salyu-Cornelius project won’t be a rehash of Bjork’s Medulla. Early previews and descriptions hinted at an album using the J-Pop singer’s voice as a base, but newly released song “Muse’ic” reveals that won’t be entirely the case. Here the structure comes courtesy of Cornelius’ bright keyboard hiccups, popping up in every corner. It’s a classic production job from the ever-busy dude, seemingly disjointed electronic noises set against an occasional drum hit that seemingly appear randomly but all fall into place just right. “Muse’ic” also ends up featuring a lot of room to roam, blank space Salyu fills with her vocals. No longer having to work as a blueprint, her singing becomes a legitimate instrument, a chorus of Salyu’s sirening off in all sorts of directions at once. Some remain relatively grounded, others shoot off like a rocket piloted by chipmunks. The latest from Salyu X Salyu’s forthcoming full-length album shows great pop grounding with an experimental curve that makes this collaboration all the more exciting. Listen here.

The duo also posted a 45-second teaser of the song “Sailing Days,” a track following the same path as “Muse’ic” but with a little less pep to it. Watch below.

Salyu Preps New Album S(o)un(d)beams, Gets Cornelius To Produce, My Head Explodes

Welp, here’s my most anticipated Japanese album of 2011. J-Pop siren Salyu boasts an absolutely attention-grabbing voice, able to transform what should have been ho-hum J-Pop into something special. Musical tinkerer Cornelius creates forward-thinking pastiches, having released a handful of excellent albums and putting together one of the best (and precise!) live shows around. Tokyo Hive reports the two artists have joined forces for an album called S(o)un(d)beams, which will explore “Salyu’s idea of using her voice as an instrument that creates a variety of sublimating sounds.”

Swag.

This isn’t just speculation either, the equivalent of me going “man, if Jordan and Olajuwon played on the same team that would be awesome!” This is some James-with-Wade realty, because Salyu (who will be going by “Salyu X Salyu” for this album due to the whole voice-exploration angle) has posted one song to her website and it’s definitely intriguing. Cornelius takes snippets of Salyu’s singing and arranges them into a rippling arrangement, each vocal placed with care – think “Fit Song.” Salyu, the main one at least, does what she usually does over the mash of wordless singing and piano… sing her guts out. This track would be an interesting experiment hinting at an equally potential-laden album without the final leg, wherein every element of the song circles into the center until they all converge into one whoosh of noise. Salyu starts sounding like Bjork and the whole thing seems like it could rip apart at any second. Then…peace. It’s a dizzying climax you really ought to listen to here.

Bonus video of last year’s excellent “新しいYES.”