Issue #31: Wonderland
Discussing the new Lyrical School album, "Miserarete" by Judy Ongg and Dempagumi.inc's bonkers cover of Beastie Boys' "Sabotage"
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Dempagumi.inc’s cover of the Beastie Boys classic “Sabotage” raises a lot of questions, the biggest one being the same one screamed by the latter’s Ad-Rock in the 1994 original: Why? Released in 2012, it was a strange choice for the idol group even as a B-side. Though they were chaotic in its own way, their immediate image did not place rock and punk music at the forefront whatsoever1. Appearing edgy wasn’t exactly their mission as their synth-led music instead took in sounds and styles popular in nerd culture at the time. The best guess for a motive is a desire to play with expectations, and Dempagumi’s cover doesn’t go against it as so much as it dismantles it altogether.
Most covers of “Sabotage” by other popular bands faithfully approach the Beastie Boys original. Many hold up the record less as a song than as a symbol for punk angst, letting its rawness feed into their performances. That said, the covers often channel aggression in a labored manner, like they are pantomiming anger rather than expressing it. The rare inspired take comes from Linkin Park, who have earned their own reputation as a band exploring inner rage, though their cover also scans more as an homage to their stylistic predecessors than an original twist on a well-worn classic.
Dempagumi, meanwhile, show no care to what “Sabotage” possibly represents as a piece of music. The idols approach the track as if they heard the original for the first time about five minutes prior to recording. They recite not so much lyrics than a mush of sounds, like they were handed a print of the English words transposed into a string of katakana—just syllables in random arrangements that keep going on and on. Moga Mogami screams in a mumble like she has ice cubes in her mouth; Nemu Yumemi yawns for an entire bar. Ad-Rock’s shouting flow hardly remains on Dempagumi’s “Sabotage,” but their lack of regard for the source record transforms it into a whole new song.
The one thing intact from the Beastie Boys track is the signature, off-the-cuff bass line. Though, the production quickly gets re-written as an extension of Dempagumi’s universe. Flashy synth riffs crowd the space as they often do in the idol group’s songs; the intro begins with the “tiger, fire, cyber” wotagei chant often recited by otakus at idol shows. The song’s producer Hyadain generally cannot subtract elements in his music to save his life, and yet he’s the rare few whose penchant for throwing together everything and the kitchen sink can enhance a track in the style of classic punk—a genre that’s otherwise best left pared down to its raw essentials.
“Sabotage” doesn’t resemble a punk song in the hands of Dempagumi, though, more than it recalls noise music. There’s just so much going on atop the main melody. Sputtering synths, electronic screeches and mangled guitar riffs constantly whiz by. The production also abruptly shape-shifts: after Dempagumi shout an ear-piercing scream of the iconic whyyyyy??? it suddenly becomes a lullaby rendition of the “listen to all of y’all, it’s a sabotage” hook. Their cover overwhelms the senses through its saturation of sounds but also twisting of perception, warping the original into a bizarre, funhouse-mirror version of itself.
Sure, Dempagumi’s cover of “Sabotage” is overall bad if the assignment was for the group to recreate the song as close to the original as possible. But why measure it according to how well they can paint by numbers when the group hands in something truly outside of expectations? While other covers partly rely on the familiarity of the original single, Dempagumi obscure it beyond recognition. The idols do whatever they want to do in the song without thinking about if it respects the record—isn’t that what makes real punk?
I’ve been wanting to write about Dempagumi.inc’s “Sabotage” for a long time, so I’m glad to I finally got to do it here. There are more words about idol music in this issue for our Album of the Week. I also had a fun time writing and researching for our Oricon flashback dedicated to a very iconic Showa single. Not everything I read about fit into the section, so I hope to put some of that information to use for another write-up. And of course, I plug some new singles as usual for your listening pleasure.
Album of the Week
Wonderland by Lyrical School [Victor]
Lyrical School have been putting in work to elevate their reputation as a rapper-idol group since they settled into their current five-member line-up. The crew legitimized their concept in 2018’s World’s End, and the idols defined each of their roles within the collective in their previous record, Be Kind Rewind. The stakes behind their latest full-length, Wonderland, should be comparatively lower with a lot already being done. But Lyrical School refuses to take it easy for their sixth album, searching for new ways to improve on what they’ve been building on for years.
There was a noticeable shift in “Last Dance,” a late single of Be Kind Rewind. Lyrical School have already recorded several love songs—they are an idol group after all. But whereas the idols previously joined together to shout one collective expression, each of their voices in “Last Dance” distinctly stuck out from another. The track told a story about ephemeral romance from five different perspectives with each of their singular personalities adding a new kind of depth and dimension to the group’s music.
“OK!” applied this approach of multiple points of view for a straight-up rap song, and it brought the group’s most spectacular performance as rappers thus far. The contrast between the members’ personalities draws out the strengths unique to each of the five. The more stoic members seem to steal the spotlight upon first glance as they push their limits to display their skills, but that edge in style ends up complementing the softer voices and their more idol-like charm. Not only do one round out another, they also provide what the other cannot.
The production in Wonderland further teases out the members’ diverse personalities. Minan stands out as the multi-faceted star of the R&B-leaning “Time Machine,” coolly singing the hook while establishing the chillness that the others would follow. The summertime piano-funk of “Bring the Noise” and the beat’s jolly bounce are tailor-made for the bubbly Hinako as well as the happy-go-lucky Risano; the rapper’s rapper Hime meanwhile has to adapt her style into something pop-appropriate. “Money Cash Cash Cash” allows all five to get flamboyant, its obnoxious brass beat setting the stage for them to flaunt that paper.
For all they do to hold their own on the mic, what makes Lyrical School such great rappers goes hand in hand with their appeal as an idol group exploring a traditionally non-idol genre. While the idols impressively tackle a series of freewheeling verses in the album highlight “Fantasy,” the thrill really comes from how their performance reveals the raw, animated process of rapping itself. The wonky, kitchen-sink beat reinforces this sandbox feel, like the group is openly showing you the nuts and bolts. Lyrical School at their best share the sheer joy of rapping through an enthusiast’s lens.
What puts Lyrical School above the average rapper also goes back to their idol roots. Even if emcees can pen more complex raps, not many can match Lyrical School’s ability to craft pop songs. While rappers need to break down multiple layers of their persona to fit a love-sprung earnestness as heard in “Bring the Noise” into their repertoire, it’s a personality welcomed from Lyrical School precisely because they’re an idol group. And the five deliver tenderness without sacrificing style: Hime, Risano and Minan don’t let the softness of the theme bend their cool raps while Hinako and Yuu just thrive in the topic. It’s one of the many moments in Wonderland that remind of the unique creative freedom in being a rapper-idol.
“Desperate Power” by Minami [self-released]
Stumbling upon records uploaded by various college club circles in Japan is definitely a perk of browsing for new music on Bandcamp. My latest find is Effectors, a group of aspiring electronic producers based on the campus of Osaka’s Kindai University, who create and submit tracks based on a posted concept, like train melodies or relaxation.
After last October’s free-for-all theme, they’ve returned with the three-track POWER EP collecting growling bass snippets that live up to the given title. Kicking off the project, Minami’s “Desperate Power” is my pick for the best out of the very brief compilation. Neon synths and skittering drums all rattle around this high-speed, trap-EDM bullet blender. Once a screwed-up vocal clip of Kreayshawn gives it the green light, the track unleashes this slithering, earth-shaking bass line amid a choppy sonic storm of grime-y wobbles and aerial 808 rolls. Minami’s contribution gets me reminiscing of the glory days of Rustie and Hudson Mohawke before it quickly clocks out to give others the floor to thrash some more.
POWER EP is out now. Listen to it on Bandcamp.
“Fallin’ Orange” by Subway Daydream [Rainbow]
Subway Daydream make a great addition to what I’ve been half-jokingly referring to as “the Dreams of the Year 2010,” basically the crop of young Asian bands from Japan, South Korea and Thailand (so far by my count anyway) ready to usher in a full-on revival of indie rock circa 2010. The shimmering guitar jangles, the sweet girl-group harmonies, the shoegaze-esque undercurrents—“Fallin’ Orange” recalls the C86-channeling post-punk delivered by the Pains of Being Pure at Heart around the turn of the last decade, only free of the rough, lo-fi grit. “Everyone is coloring their memories / at an unstoppable speed,” goes a lyric, capturing youth at its most fleeting. As Subway Daydream embraces the rush, it’s easy to see just why this naive, dreamy rock sound remains a popular soundtrack for their young adult friction.
BORN EP is out April 28. Listen to the single on Spotify.
“Late Spring, Sunny” by tonari no Hanako [rain]
It’s difficult to predict where the jazzy pianos will land in a tonari no Hanako track. While the band’s previous Pale Spring EP turned that tipsy catwalk into sweet pop jubilance, the intoxicated feel of “Late Spring, Sunny” inspires a dreamy piece of surrealist jazz-rock. The vocals prance along a lush, sunny melody, its breeziness understating the restless musical activity as well as the oblique nature of the lyrics. The song’s contrast of grace and disorder, though, only makes it feel more entrancing.
Say at the Moment of Farewell EP is out now. Listen to it on Spotify.
This Week in 1979…
“Miserarete” by Judy Ongg [CBS Sony, 1979]
The cultural allure of “Miserarete” hinges upon multiple layers of exoticism, starting from the oriental appeal of the Taiwanese-Japanese singer Judy Ongg. “While the Aegea of the chorus refers to the Aegean Sea, the pronunciation of it makes you imagine Asia, even more with Judy singing it,” a fan columnist writes on the Showa-entertainment community site Reminder, who notes her “exotic look” as a part of what helped her gain an idol-like popularity in the ‘70s. For a while, “the wind is blowing from the Asia” is also what I thought I heard whenever I came across this song, and both the singer’s presence as well as the classic kayoukyoku feel of the music convinced me to not question it.
While “Miserarete” follows a typical procedure for a pop hit from the late ‘70s, the music still seems to serve as a music cue intentionally engineering an aura of exotic mysticism. Part of it is by design: producer Masatoshi Sakai worked on “Miserarete” as a tie-up for Masuo Ikeda’s novel-turned-film Dedicato al mare Egeo. Otherworldliness was on the mind since the record’s inception, and the histrionic feel of it all places the song more in the fantastical universe of cinema. A roaring string intro introduces the smoky, stormy vocals of Ongg, who later sounds as though she has descended from the skies as her voice floats along in the chorus.
“Miserarete” seems to belong even more in the world of myths upon hearing turns of phrases written by lyricist Youko Aki, responsible for hits like Momoe Yamaguchi’s “Yokusuka Story.” “A woman is like the sea / even in the arms of the man she loves / she dreams of another man,” Ongg sighs like an oracle warning of sirens — or is she the siren herself? It reads ironic given the associated film, which centers on a man who cheats on multiple women throughout the course of the story. Nevertheless, though Ongg sings with grace, the gust flowing out of the chorus signifies a treacherous yet irresistible attraction that ignites a grand, romantic fable.
Ongg herself appeared larger than life in her notorious TV performances of “Miserarete” that year. With a white light beaming behind her like the sun, she spread the wings of her dress as she entered the song’s divine chorus. The iconic look led to a sell-out of sheets from fans trying to imitate what she wore. “They were flying off the shelves during the days leading up to New Year’s Eve,” Ongg said on TV in 2018. “They cut holes and pasted sequins on them. And they were split between sheets people and curtains people.” The singer is still in an arm’s race with herself to make the wings bigger than her last performance. It remains a full-time job for Ongg to maintain the mythical image established by her classic single from more than 40 years ago.
The next issue of This Side of Japan is out May 5. You can check out previous issues of the newsletter here.
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There is an entire separate conversation to be had, though, about how Dempagumi is rock and punk, or at least how their music compete with punk bands proper in the department of power and speed. To discuss this, we need to also note how much songwriter Tamaya 100% is key in the development of Dempagumi’s early sound; his band Weinners bring that same energy to a proper pop-punk band context. Maybe one day I will go more in depth, but for now, you can revisit this blurb about the group’s “Precious Summer” and how they give me the same thrills as a thrash-metal record.