Tuesday, July 20, 2010

This Week On Audiosurf Radio – My Yamato Guitar Edition

It’s easy to assume that all Japanese music is J-Pop.  I mean, J-Pop is just so loud it practically drowns out every other genre that might make a peep.  When given the chance, it’s refreshing to turn down the volume on the butterflies and yakatori boys and lend an ear to something softer.

Yomi Aoki is, at first glance, definitely softer.  His barebones style stands in stark contrast to the musical excess I described earlier: a guitar, his voice, nothing else.  It’s an odd blend of the Western singer-songwriter style with Japanese folk.

Secret Ocean is the name Hiroumi records under when backing his singer-songwriter music with percussion.  His material’s a bit more polished than Aoki’s, and it shows in the quality of the recording, too.  Also, I’m a huge fan of Hiroumi’s website, titled “You know me, Hiroumi.”  It’s so damned endearing.

Has the singer-songwriter bug successfully journeyed across the Pacific to bite unsuspecting Japanese musicians?  Find out after the jump.

The Songs

Yomi Aoki’s first track (Audiosurf hasn’t even given me kanji for the song titles) reminds everyone in the comments – and Lebeth herself – of that Portugese guy who sang the Bowie covers from The Life Aquatic.  I suppose that’s a fair assessment.  The guitar playing, while more upbeat than the acts I’m about to reference, bears a similar roughness to folks like Nick Drake or the solo guitar tracks from O Brother Where Art Thou?.  It’s not a slick studio recording.  Strings squeak and strumming rings inconsistently.  Aoki’s voice supports this Dude-Singing-On-His-Porch (do Japanese houses have porches?) vibe.  It’s piercing at times, warm at others.  There’s a charming lack of polish to the whole enterprise that helps distract from the rough ride caused by the Steep tag.  It’s not a fixer-upper.  Play this song just as it is.

I wish I could tell if Aoki were some kind of Japanese Flight of the Conchords.  His singing on the second track is almost comical.  The verses are a blur of consonants in his lower register.  He’s just talking, too quickly perhaps even for a native speaker to understand.  In the chorus, he launches into full-on wailing, to the point of sounding comical.  I’m willing to accept that I may just be being culturally insensitive or something, but what sounded folksy on the first track is grating here on the second.  I’d love for it to be on purpose, some send-up of love songs or something.  Just check out the moody little blues bounce he lays under the verses.  It’s the kind of riff the Conchords vamp when they want to engage in a little crosstalk.  Even the final guitar absurdity – Aoki strumming as hard as he can on every string he can find – sounds ironic.  That or he just didn’t know how to end the song.

If search results are to be believed, “Kokoro no Furyoku” means the “Buoyancy of a Heart.”  I can see that.   The titular lyric lifts Hiroumi’s voice, carrying it above the music.  It’s poppy, but not J-Poppy.  There’s actual music here that isn’t meant to be played at a club and isn’t derived from a videogame song.  Were there a way to run the song – notes, temperament, and all – through Google Translate, you’d probably get something like the Goo Goo Dolls during their dominance of the VH1 Top 20 Countdown.  It’s not exact.  Hiroumi’s instrumentation and vocal delivery are idiomatic to Japan, but the Easy Listening pop feeling persists.  Be sure not to read any of that as an insult, however.  Music like this has its place: on the radio, available for road trip sing-alongs – provided I knew what any of the words meant. 

Is there a word for when Japanese people use English randomly in a sentence?  Apparently there is: gairaigo.  Secret Ocean’s “Beautiful” uses a hell of a lot of gairaigo.  Just look at the song’s title.  I’ve always found this jarring, but it bothers my ear the most in a musical setting.  When I’m lulled into the Japanese language – as Hiroumi’s voice does well – the last thing I expect is for him to randomly say “winding road.”  I imagine the French have similar reactions to Lady Gaga on a regular basis.  By employing excessive gairaigo and a cooing female backup singer, Hiroumi lost me a bit on this one.  Yeah, it’s got a funky little percussion beat, and the guitar’s pleasant.  But I just can’t listen to the odd vocal and linguistic acrobatics going on.

Author’s Note

All songs were played on the Pro difficulty at least twice using the Eraser and Vegas characters.  I think I even got onto the global leaderboard for “Kokoro no Furyoku.”

In general, the masses seemed to enjoy this week’s offerings.  Nothing that really stands out, but it’s always a treat to open the comments and breathe the fresh air of positivity.

This is also when I recommend that you try Audiosurf already.  If you’re bothering to look at a visualizer, you might as well ride one.