Issue #44: See-Voice
Exploring the new Pasocom Music Club, PUFFY's pivotal second single and six non-2021 albums I enjoyed this year
Hi! Welcome to This Side of Japan, a newsletter on Japanese music, new and old. You can check out previous issues here.
Another year is almost coming to an end, which means it’s about that time to start evaluating all of the great new records that came out in the past 12 or so months. But before we get to list season, I wanted to look back at some of my favorite Japanese music discoveries not from 2021. I try my best for my listen of older albums to not feel like homework, especially as I started to take a peek at older records for research for various sections of this newsletter. This leads more to picks based on my mood then and there, which usually ends up landing on more pop releases—you may be able to pick up on that from my choices. Assuredly, all the titles here have been a delightful new find for me in 2021.
Here are six non-2021 albums I enjoyed this year for the first time:
Thanks Giving by RA MU [VAP, 1988]
After setting aside Adventure for so long, I finally had a good excuse this year to listen to the album as well as other records in Momoko Kikuchi’s catalog as part research for my write-up on “Broken Sunset” (for issue #27). I imagine Adventure might already be familiar to some hanks to YouTube’s algorithms recommending it as a city-pop essential, so I will instead nudge you to seek other entries, like her music as Ra Mu, a collaboration with the jazz-fusion band Prism. While the AOR and lite-funk music glistens like the rest of the idol’s ‘80s releases, her partners of the project flesh out a live, analog warmth in comparison to the usual digital sleekness. It’s a shame the effort was treated as novelty at the time given Kikuchi’s reputation as an idol, though if the city-pop revival is good at one thing, it’s reappraisal of worthwhile history.
Unbalance+Balance by Akina Nakamori [MCA, 1993]
*Recommended track: “Not Crazy to Me”
The lavish R&B of Unbalance+Balance firmly places Akina Nakamori out of the Bubble era, her peak time of reign, and into the shifting times of post-crash Heisei, a rather overlooked decade in her career. Period-specific as the music may seem, she tames liquid house and New Jack Swing as natural developments into her catalog. No matter what style of music she’s given, she excels in building exquisite drama about yearning for company either by flexing her vocal trills (“Aibu”) or letting her smoky sighs evaporate into vapor (“Kagerou”). The music may have simmered down since her golden days, but Nakamori continues to relish in opulence in Unbalance+Balance in ways only she can.
Another year in the wraps for This Side of Japan! This issue will be the last regular newsletter for the year until the big year-end features planned to roll out some time in December. Thanks for sticking around throughout the year as we covered more exciting parts of Japanese music. And we got a contender as one of the year’s best for the albums, a revisit of a favorite classic and a series of great singles to conclude our run of 20 issues.
Happy listening, and see you next month!
Album of the Week
See-Voice by Pasocom Music Club [self-released]
An instrumental EP titled Ambience was a fitting, if not obvious choice for Pasocom Music Club last year if you take account of their creative pursuits so focused on setting and atmosphere. The duo’s sleek electronics conjure vivid scenery while supporting voices coloring in the feelings the sights evoke: a busy beat builds the outline of a late-night city in a past masterful single “Reiji No Machi” as singer Inoue Warabi details the electric life that breathes in it. But if their past two full-lengths, Dream Walk and Night Flow, celebrated the beauty of a sprawling city, See-Voice finds Pasocom Music Club venturing out to appreciate the life that lie far outside of towering skyscrapers.
Sound wise, See-Voice is the soothing, environmental album that Ambience suggests it is. Synths continue to teem with life as the rest of the Pasocom Music Club catalog, but the duo favors plush, tranquil sounds that teases the natural elements. Glossy electronics evaporates into a gust of wind in “Far” while strings and sax echo in the distance; the guitar riff of “Locator” lures the track closer to bedroom-folkie territory than the synth-wiz image usually applied to the duo. The synth-centric cuts dabble more in new age than technopop, like the instrumental “Aqua Glass” that frolics to the tune of elegant harps and Chrono Trigger flutes. The lush greenery displayed on the cover of Ambience illustrates the unfolding mental scenes as fitting as the open skies of See-Voice.
Pasocom Music Club’s lyric-driven songs have always been responses to the evolving world around them. But the vocalists in See-Voice function more than the anonymous, omniscient narrators contexualizing the scene in past records. As the production duo build a soundscape resembling the natural world, the inhabiting voices feel warmly human as they note the glimmer of the surrounding water and air. Beyond supplying the blissful scenery, the spacious, solitude-driven atmosphere set by the production inspires vocalists to get introspective, and their perspectives read more intimately personal as they react in real time to what they experience with their senses.
While the sense of awe recounted by the vocalists sounds as inspiring as their past work, See-Voice digs deeper beyond the surface to explore emotions set in motion by the striking details. The singers lament an unfortunate absense, wishing to share the beauty in front of them in the company of another. “If you’re tired of searching for answers / you should also come here some time,” Moto Kawabe casually advises in “Underwater” to a tune as chill as his main band mitsume but not before asking for an invite in return, just in case he runs into the same issue. “The turning page of this story / What kind of dreams do you see,” Tokiyo calls out in the yearning “Voice” with memories rushing back from the sights of the calm sea.
The texture of See-Voice often resembles the physicality of memory with the music as evocative but also gossamer and vanishing, illuminating yet quickly fizzling out. The shared obsession by the singers to document concrete details define the album’s core humanity as though it’s their way to cope with life’s ephemeral nature. Like our own corporeal reality, the beauty in the world of See-Voice is perpetually fleeting. “The more time passes by / we lose what’s beautiful / the smells, the colors and the shape of air / that we definitely saw through a child’s eye,” Tokiyo laments at the top of “Innocent Blue.” See-Voice overall stands elegiac, following a similar desire to remember what’s starting to be forgotten and treasure the bits that’s left.
Acceleration peaks in the album’s final track, “Uminari.” A drum ‘n’ bass break softly patters underneath a warm rush of wind, and Kawabe and unmo sing out what others also wished to have in their otherwise idyllic world: “Let me hear your voice, a see-through voice I entrust / if I can meet you between the rumbling sea, with clouds overlapping endlessly,” the two sing in the titular refrain along equally sighing music. The duet sounds like a last attempt to hold on to a precious memory. The drum breaks speed up the fade out, rapidly turning the tender sounds into vapor, and yet the two sound at peace as they finally let go.
“Longskirt Wa Nabiite” by Conton Candy [sambafree]
A spirited pop rock like “Longskirt Wa Nabiite,” from Conton Candy’s new PURE EP, should soundtrack a far more cheerful story than the imminent break-up unfolding inside the song. The restless charge of the riffs, however, makes for a great, poignant narrative device. “Our time until the end keeps speeding up,” Tsumugi Yashima sings at the end of the chorus, and the rest of the band reiterates the acceleration with an unstoppable rush of music.
The hard-hitting rock also dispels any possible novelty from Yashima’s otherwise earnest lyrics about her relationship told via texting habits: “You always reply so slow / My feelings are always so unsure,” she sighs, and her speculation turns out to be true in the punchline of a pre-chorus, where she finds out he no longer has her picture on the lock-screen wallpaper. The Smartphone-generation language dates itself, sure, but it is ultimately honest: this is modern romance, its details painfully familiar as it is surprisingly mundane.
PURE EP is out now.
“Work” by Nariaki Obukuro [Sony]
Nariaki Obukuro stumbles upon an earworm of a cadence in “Work,” the opening song in his brilliant new album, Strides. He effortlessly slides into the hip-hop bounce, and the smoothness of his syllabic play gives it a sense of spontaneity to his rhymes. The freestyle feel helps ease the self-satisfaction teased in his anti-9-to-5 refrain: “I gotta work to keep on living for me,” he thinks out loud over a sparse boom-bap’n’B. “This body, for whom am I giving all of it to?” Give the prose to another artist, and he’d maybe get more vocal about the song’s middle-fingers-raised sentiments. Obukuro instead rolls by with a shrug, his words echoing more as a casual food for thought.
Strides is out now. Listen to it on Spotify.
“Not Sure” by Swimming Sheep ft. UZA [self-released]
Swimming Sheep has not slowed down with quality collaborations this year, resuming his streak for recruiting standout indie artists from South Korea, like Kajuen’s Mellow Blush or producer-singer Universe Mongae. The recent link-up with the latter artist gives a nice snapshot of where the producer’s head has been at, with its hard-stomping, 2-step-inspired beat perfect for a night out in contrast to his out-in-the-sun 2020 LP, WEEKDAY’S ICE.
The dusky production for “Not Sure” in particular feels like the comedown from the dance-floor activities dreamt up in “Pool,” or perhaps a yearning to actually go out and embrace the night to mend an intangible absence. “I don’t know / when I saw you last,” featured singer UZA laments in the somber chorus that sashays like a R&B cut from the early ‘00s. “My memory is getting foggy / I don’t know / what to do.” The music seems content to keep on indulging on her melancholy, and her defeated mood hits poignant especially during a time when we want to re-connect with loved ones more than ever.
Listen to it on Spotify.
This Week in 1996…
“Kore Ga Watashi No Ikiru Michi” by PUFFY [Epic, 1996]
The best-remembered quality of pop duo PUFFY remain their carefree persona that struck a middle between punk and hippie. “Ami Onuki and Yumi Yoshimura went on TV both wearing not stage clothes like other idols but outfits based on jeans, T-shirts and sneakers, and this made them a presence who feels closer to the viewers at home,” PUFFY’s former staff Kenichi Hirose told Hiroshima FM in 2010.
The duo presented their vagabond image first in “Kore Ga Watashi No Ikiru Michi.” The music video for their second single follows Onuki and Yoshimura traveling across America, cruising the open road in a convertible but sometimes attempting to hitch a ride. J-pop music videos set in America were far from new, but the scenes of “Kore Ga Watashi No Ikiru Michi” in particular played essential to establish a free-spirited lifestyle as part of the PUFFY experience, especially during an era when music videos reigned supreme to broadcast personality.
Despite putting together a distinct look upon debut, it took some time for PUFFY to grow into their no-care-given image. Their first LP, amiyumi, and its lead single “Asia No Junjou,” introduced their signature ‘60s and ‘70s-indebted rock sound, but the album couldn’t fully escape the shadow of chief producer Tamio Okuda, former frontman of UNICORN. For “Kore Ga Watashi No Ikiru Michi,” Okuda lightened the music of PUFFY from the hard rock and glam of the ‘70s—the foundation to UNICORN as well as his solo work around this time—to the pop rock and group pop of the ‘60s. Not that Onuki nor Yoshimura couldn’t initially hang: the breezier music allowed their characters to be at the forefront with less interference from Okuda’s own musical voice.
The easy-going sounds also emphasized a mentality and attitude that would come to inform PUFFY’s iconography. The proclaiming title of “Kore Ga Watashi No Ikiru Michi”—this is the way I live—framed the sentiments within the record as a loose manifesto, and they embraced a hippie-like lifestyle of sincerity and carefree living to the tune of classic rock ‘n’ roll. “For a little bit / it’s of course gonna be worrisome / that’s the way it is,” they sing over a doo-wop swing not before the guitars crash back to welcome a shot of optimism: “Soon enough / we’ll be feelin’ alright.”
“PUFFY debuted during the era of the Komuro sound represented by Namie Amuro, of digital electronic production,” Hirose told Hiroshima FM. “But Tamio Okuda focused on simple, easy-to-understand, analog recording for PUFFY’s sound.” Indeed, it’s easy to place the duo in contrast to the decade’s omnipresent Komuro Family, starting from their sound that worked as the analog, classic-rock foil to Komuro’s digital dance-pop beats. But more than that, PUFFY’s lack of care to larger-than-life presentation stood as an alternative to the meticulously produced looks of superstars like Namie Amuro. The resistence to extravagant living outlined in “Kore Ga Watashi No Ikiru Michi” bolsters the claim.
PUFFY share an origin story common to industry-designed idols and J-pop acts of the ‘90s, though. Onuki and Yoshimura got put together as a duo by Sony after each singer initially drew the label’s attention as potential solo acts through company-held auditions—nowhere near a tale of rock ‘n’ roll friendship that the 2000s cartoon Hi Hi Puffy AmiYumi would suggest. And yet the way the two carried themselves seemed almost anti-idol with them dressing down the pop-star look but also the virtuosity: PUFFY let vibe carry the notes, and “Kore Ga Watashi No Ikiru Michi” was when charisma first convinced of their ambitions.
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Next issue of This Side of Japan is out in December. You can check out previous issues of the newsletter here.
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