2/5 - Take it or leave it

muse by YOLK

Released: 23.03.22 | Label: Tanukineiri Records

Hope you’re having a great week! Today we’re checking out a new track by the three-piece band YOLK. This is the first time I’ve heard them, so let’s see what they’ve cooked up for us.

Well that was a nice song. The band has definitely mastered the chill vibe. All the playing is good, and I really like the singers voice. They use a refreshingly large amount of sounds, but mostly as one-shot solo-licks and then they disappear. I think I heard a flute in there somewhere? It left me wishing they’d stayed around to flesh out the arrangement.

Sadly the mix really makes hurts the track. The vocals are a bit too far back in the mix and hard to enjoy, and the guitars keys and cymbals have all blended together into a pleasant but indistinguishable wash. Not a song I’d listen to again, but I wouldn’t change the channel or anything. Give it a shot if you’re feeling adventurous.

Verdict: Take it or leave it (2.1/5)

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Bokura by MEMEMION

Released: 22.08.17 / Label: Self-released

This track took me completely by surprise with its strange mix of straight-ahead pop and almost classical tonal complexity. MEMEMION is a five-piece band that formed last year, 2021, in the midst of corona shut-downs. While it’s clear this group of extremely talented musicians all come from different backgrounds, it’s impressive that they’ve found a way for it all to (mostly) fit together in such a short time. The vocals take the lead in Bokura, center stage in every section aside from the guitar solo, and boy are they all over the place. Strange harmonic leaps across a massive range are the norm here, giving the melody a Visual-K or classic prog rock sound. Meanwhile, the rhythm section is busy hopping back and forth between rock, funk, and straight J-pop. The guitars feel like the glue in the mix, playing the mediary between genres. While the song definitely kept my analytic brain super interested for the first few listens, I can’t say I ever really felt the groove. Eventually the leaps in the vocals started to wear on my ears, and the lack of of a strong tonic base in the chorus left things feeling floaty and inconclusive. So while repeated listening is not recommended it’s a great ‘outside’ track for playlists. Especially recommended for those more familiar with music theory, or fans of complex harmony.

Verdict: Recommended with caution (2.9/5)

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Fukaikan by OSTRIP

Released: 22.08.17 / Label: Self-released

I’ve reviewed a track by OSTRIP before and I liked them so much I though I’d check out their newest single. I’m sad to say that I’m a bit underwhelmed this time around. Fukaikan starts out playfully enough with a cute synth plonking down a lilting melody line that continues throughout the song. Good start. The groove seems mysterious and fun, at first. But as soon as the vocals enter things go sideways. Although the melody is solid, the singing in the verse feels too laid back and takes all the energy out of the song. A change of singer as we enter the chorus doesn’t help, it just don’t pop. The rhythm section might be to blame here, literally nothing changes throughout the whole song and as the track hits its second verse it’s already starting to feel old. In general it feels they should have spent a few more weeks working on arrangement. So, while not a bad melody, the whole track feels very much in need of polish. Especially when compared with their last single.

Verdict: Take it or leave it. (2.2/5)

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Reality by Living Rita

Released: 22.07.15 / Label: Orange Sunshine

Reality is the first track out from the upcoming double release “Reality/UTOPIA” from Living Rita. I love this minimal cover they’ve chosen. The RGB shifted almost flower-like object gives it a mysterious and spooky quality. No idea what it is though, so I guess that fits the title pretty well. I’ve not heard of this group before, so let’s do a little digging and find out who they are.

This duo is a spin-off project by Masami Takei (Ba/Vo) and Mai Takahashi (Synth/Vo) both of popular indie group Czecho No Republic. Turns out I did know who they were, I just had no idea they’d started this new group. Their band Czecho is well known in Japan and their music has been used as the ending themes for two recent Dragon Ball series. But Living Rita is a much newer and lesser known group. It seems that the two wanted to explore songwriting outside the music they were making with Czecho and the Corona lock-downs gave them the opportunity to get started. They’ve had a few large shows, one with Luby Sparks who we’ve reviewed before, and they’ve got another big event next month to celebrate this release. I’m very interested to hear what they’ve created as a smaller unit, so let’s check it out.

Wow, that was a strange song. It’s not like anything I’ve heard recently, seeming almost late 60s or early 70s in its composition. The melody is extremely slippery, velvety smooth but all over the place harmonically. At the same time the backing band is super chordal and straight forward. The players all have the occasional fill at the ends of phrases that attempt to give the track life, but it sounds more like a backing band at a bar show. Not lazy playing, but a kind of bored feel to everything. By the second listen I was a little bored, too. Not to say that the song is bad, it’s just not interesting either. Everything seems very stagnant and all the interesting bits come off as decoration.

The band sounds great though. It’s clearly a group of stellar musicians, especially the two main members. The recording is clean and the mix is nice if a bit washy. The short guitar solo sounds great, but has little impact on the song. Which is a pretty good summary of the overall vibe here. Not something I’d recommend, but I won’t hit the next button if it comes up on shuffle. I’ll be sure to check out the second single from this release when it comes out, Hopefully that will give me a better read on the group.

Verdict: Take it or leave it (2.8/3)

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A.O.U by illiomote

Released: 22.07.06 / Label: SPILD

What an interesting choice for an album cover. I wonder if they make a physical copy of the album will the disc will have the same print as above? Or maybe they’ll release without a cover? Intriguing. A.O.U is the lead single for illiomote‘s new album, side_effects+, dropping on July 27th. (That’s right, I’m way ahead of the release this time!) But I don’t know anything about this band yet, so let’s do some digging!

This relatively new duo is based in Tokyo and have been making music since 2019. Members YOCO and MAIYA have been friends since kindergarten. After getting their start on YouTube, the two have released one full album along with several EPs and singles. So they’ve been busy the last three years, and they’re showing no sign of slowing down. They mention in their bio that their music ranges from rock to pop, so let’s see what kind of song they’ve decided to create for us today.

An interesting club sound to this track. It’s a very minimal electronic arrangement with some really beautiful vocals on top. I’m loving the voice, and the harmony work is really well done as well. The chorus synth work is also really light and easy to listen to. The track overall has a lightness to it that’s rare for this style in Japan. I’m used to a really busy arrangement, so the relaxed mood here is refreshing. It does start to feel a bit like sample loop city at the halfway point. It’s clear that they’ve got an idea of where they want to go, but maybe they aren’t quite sure how to get there yet.

A.O.U also suffers from a lack of dynamic contrast in the parts, which is typical of this kind of loop based electronic arrangement. Sadly it means the song feels a bit flat overall and lacks any real climax. The mix doesn’t help here either. While the instruments are placed well and the atmosphere the track creates is admirable, it’s a very stagnant sound. I think with a bit more panning or playing with stereo space the track would come to life. Definitely room for improvement, but that will all come with experience and time. They’ve got the groove and melody down, so I’m excited to hear how the album sounds when it releases later this month.

Verdict: Take it or leave it (2.8/5)

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Hold On by Junya Narita

Released: 22.06.24 / Label: Self-released

There are a lot of these cityscape covers in the J-Indie scene, but this has to be one of the better ones I’ve seen. The colors are really well done and the soft text of ‘Hold On’ at the top is definitely a mood. Let’s find out a little about the artist before jumping into the track.

It’s hard to find info on Junya Narita in the usual places, but all his social pics point to him being a solo singer/songwriter based in Tokyo who’s had a lot of success on streaming platforms, but is still on his way up. His style is very mature, very ‘cool’ colors and fashion. Before I even hit play I’m guessing this will be a light J-Pop love song. It also seems like he’s joined by other musicians on this track, so maybe a three piece for this recording? I didn’t see many pictures of him playing with a live band though. OK, let’s get to the music.

Scariest opening lyrics I’ve heard in awhile! show me your skin Stalker-vibes aside, that was almost exactly what I was expecting, although less J-Pop and more alternative indie. Hold On is a pretty plain love song overall. The lyrics are stereotypical and the music has been done better before by thousands of other artists, which means that his voice is really the only thing unique about the song. And, luckily for Mr. Narita, he’s really pleasant to listen to. Bad English aside, the tone is fresh yet developed and gives the music some much needed emotion. I imagine that if he was singing in Japanese it would have more depth, but even here his skill is clear.

The harmony work is kind of a miss, and the overall arrangement is definitely simple. It sounds like he had some good ideas that just didn’t work out. Some sweeps and some solo melodic lines that just suffered from bad instrument choices and bad mixing. The mix itself is super boring and there are a lot of missed opportunities. The distance between this and The Fray isn’t as big as it would seem, mostly the scope of the song’s dynamics. So I hope he finds someone with a better ear and imagination to work with in the future.

Verdict: Take it or leave it (2.5/5)

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Munasawagi by NIKO NIKO TAN TAN

Released: 22.06.29 / Label: Self-released

So many capital letters with this track. NIKO NIKO TAN TAN is our main artist here, but you may recognize the name Chi- from the CHAMELEON LIME WHOOPIEPIE track we reviewed last month. I loved her stuff there so I am very excited to hear what she brings to the collab this time. I’m not as familiar with NIKO, so let’s learn a bit about them before we get to the track review.

NIKO NIKO TAN TAN is a four member “mixture unit” formed in 2019. Two members do the music while the other two do video. So they really are more of a creative unit and less of a traditional band. They’ve been busy putting out releases like crazy the past few years, so they’re quite active. And I’m hoping that means they’ve got some really developed work here. Because half the band is devoted to the video side of things, I feel like it might be best to actually embed the music video here for you to watch rather than just listening. So give that a watch after you check out the review!

Chaos is the name of the game with this group in an awesome and creative way, but it’s all just a little too fuzzy. Chi- is a perfect match for this style, and, despite the craziness of the video, she seems more restrained than in her own music. The song is fun and the composition is solid, though nothing to write home about. It works well as a jam song. The lyrics are, just like with the WHOOPIEPIE track, not that great. They’re playful and not to be taken seriously, but even so they could have been a lot better. The video has way more story than the song does, and that’s not saying much.

Speaking of video, clearly a lot of work went into the shoot and there are a lot of fun stylish scenes, but I don’t think it adds anything to the music. Which is disappointing when you consider half of the group is working on video. I expected the two halves to work together better than they did.

Overall a lack of polish in the audio mix, and a lack of quality control on the video means that I probably won’t listen (or watch) this again. Maybe the group just needs a bit more experience to work things out, maybe there was a time crunch, or maybe there was a lack of funding. Whatever the cause, there’s a lot of room to grow, and I think I’ll be waiting a year or two before checking back in.

Verdict: Take it or leave it (2.3/5)

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Sad Vacation by naomi paris tokyo

Released: 22.06.15 / Label: Virgin Music Label And Artist Services

I love the impact this cover has, very mysterious and almost spiritual with the art style. It’s the jacket for the full EP “22SS” that just came out this past month, so while it doesn’t work very well with the title Sad Vacation, it doesn’t need to. It certainly got me interested in hearing the song.

naomi paris tokyo is the oddly international name for indie musician naomi. He’s better known as one half of the duo jan and naomi but began doing solo work back in 2020. I’ve heard a little bit of the duo’s work, but this will be the first time I’ve listened to his solo material. I’ve no idea what to expect, but I’m interested to see what he brings to the music. Let’s give it a listen.

Right off the bat I’m impressed with the use of space and atmosphere of this track. A lot of beauty in the intro with beautiful strings and effects creating a lush soundscape. However. the mix kind of falls apart as soon as the guitar comes in (you’ll know) and then it all seems a bit too big spacious. The melodic and chordal ideas are simple but beautifully done, and the care put into the dynamics and arrangement of each section is obvious. It does feel like he bit off a bit more than he could chew in terms of depth. It seems like he wanted to go both cinematic and pop, a real challenge because those two genres are at odds with each other. A good attempt though, and some really beautiful moments that I’ll definitely listen to again.

Sadly I wasn’t able to find the lyrics to this song anywhere, and they’re very hard to make out on the recording, so I’m not sure what he’s singing. If you know where to find them please do let me know.

Verdict: Take it or leave it

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Deep Himawari by SANABAGUN.

Released: 22.06.23 / Label: Self-released

Deep Himawari is Japanese for deep sunflower. So there’s the cover art explanation for you. SANABAGUN. is a band I’ve not heard of before, but let’s see what we can find out about them.

The name SANABAGUN. is a Japanesifacation of the English phrase “son of a gun” which I’d suspected but am delighted to find out is true. The group began in 2013 and consists of 8 members, two lead rappers and six in the band who also rap sometimes. Looking at the roster it seems that two previous members left the band to pursue music in the group Suchmos, a band that has achieved considerable fame over the past few years, so they’ve definitely got some heavy hitters on the team. It feels a lot like one of those fun side projects you join while also doing more focused work elsewhere. They’re definitely having fun, so let’s see what they’ve created this time.

Some funky music happening here. They had me hooked with the modern intro and then the vocals came in and dropped the 90s on my head. I think this song is just meant to be a fun jam for the group, but while the band stays groovy and interesting the rap takes center stage. The mix makes a big mistake, though, setting the instruments pretty far into the background where they feel less like members and more like samples. I’m sure this is much better to see live with all the musicians together on stage.

The song is solid overall, really well composed and written, staying pretty straight-forward throughout. The only time the group drops the ball is in the break in the middle of the song. They use weird effects that completely stop the groove and feel out of place. It’s a really strange choice given the smooth section they’re setting up. That section’s singer’s voice is like butter by the way. So smooth.

Verdict: Take it or leave it (2.9/5)

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It’s Summer in the Southern Hemisphere by Akimi Morinaga

Released: 22.06.15 / Label: Self-released

I love this album cover so much. I have no idea who this guy is, but I’m already excited to find out. And it works with the title and everything. Great first impression.

A solo artist from Tokyo, Akimi Morinaga released his first EP in 2018 and has remained active since. He describes himself as a pop artist who “absorbs various genre(s) of music” and infuses them into his own style. He seems quite active as a performer, and also quite prolific. This is his fourth single released this year. Let’s see what he’s offering up this time.

That was a lot. On the one hand the composition was incredibly detailed and well thought out, but on the other hand, it’s so spastic that it’s hard to follow any of it. As a musician I can see the arrangement is a typical pop song, but I don’t think a regular listener would catch that at all. So it all washes out to being impressive but not at all moving. The individual performances are all great but the mix kind of makes everything feel a bit cheap. It works for the light happy sections but not at all during the drastically different slow sections. The lyrics are nice as well, but it feels like a bit of a chore trying to keep up with him.

I can definitely see the influence of various genres, but Akimi needs to work on fusing them better. As is it’s just disparate sections juxtaposed next to each other in a seemingly random way. Incredible music but lacking musicality, if you know what I mean. Certainly an artist to follow and watch as he matures musically, though. I’m sure he’ll be creating some interesting and more palatable work as he grows.

Verdict: Take it or leave it (2.9/5)

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