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Thursday, May 10, 2012

Different strokes for the current folk


Special to The Japan Times

The spectacle of AKB48, the wackiness of Kyary Pamyu Pamyu and the creepy undertones of Sexy Zone aren't for everyone. In fact even the most dedicated Japanese-music fans can sometimes get burned out on all the gimmicks. For those people, Turntable Films might be the antidote they need.

News photo
News photo Countryside folk: The members of Turntable Films (above from left are bassist Kento Tani, vocalist/guitarist Yosuke Inoue and drummer Natsuki Tamura) and Miwako Shimizu, aka Predawn (left), are part of a group of artists currently exploring the possibilities of folk-pop.

"Time passes slowly in Kyoto," says Yosuke Inoue about his hometown. "I like how the city and nature mix; the scenery of old buildings and new buildings suits it." Listening to Turntable Films' full-length debut, "Yellow Yesterday," is almost like taking a trip to Kyoto — leaving Tokyo's idols and commercialism behind and landing in the middle of a good-old countryside jam session.

Turntable Films aren't the only musicians pushing a country kick as of late, they're part of a blossoming wave of Japanese folk-pop comprised of young artists who favor acoustic guitar plucks and face-to-face intimacy, but don't just limit themselves to those genre hallmarks. "Yellow Yesterday" has hints of 1970's Krautrock and Nashville-bred country music in its pared-down pop.

"If the music sounds good to me, I don't care what it's influenced by," Inoue says of his inspirations. He recently told music website Private Dub that while the band members love The Beatles, they also enjoy more obscure acts such as Germany's Neu! and Brazilian psych-rockers Os Mutantes. Those interests come out on album highlight "Animal's Olives," a seven-minute track Inoue wanted to be "psychedelic Krautrock."

Of course, folk music isn't new to Japan, but the willingness to incorporate disparate styles can be rare. The roots of this genre-hopping approach can be herd on singer-songwriter Shugo Tokumaru's earliest albums: 2004's "Night Piece" and 2005's "L.S.T." Those releases found Tokumaru turning bare-bones folk songs into colorful bursts of pop accented by instruments found in a child's playroom. The current wave of folk-pop artists [see sidebar] have adopted Tokumaru's imaginative approach to the genre.

Turntable Films formed in Kyoto in 2008. Originally they had four members: Inoue, Kento Tani, Natsuki Tamura and Nozomi Funada. Funada left the group in February, but her keyboard playing is all over "Yellow Yesterday." The band signed to hometown label Second Royal after the head of the imprint heard some of their music at a local record store. They then released two mini-albums: "Parables Of Fe-Fum" came out in 2010, and "10 Days Plus One" was released last year.

"When we were making '10 Days Plus One,' we were warming up for this album," Inoue says. "We made it in such a short time span."

Appropriately, those early works came full of the kind of sparse guitar picking usually associated with the word "folk," but also featured moments of Brian Wilson-inspired pop that hinted the band could be aiming for something more than a by-the-numbers release. On "Yellow Yesterday," Turntable Films still make time for traditional folk songs, but they also indulge in plenty of artsy detours. Some tracks take cues from American folk-rockers Wilco — Inoue says he has "listened to 'Yankee Hotel Foxtrot' about 500 times." Though not mentioned specifically by Inoue, there are also cues from Scottish indie-pop group Belle & Sebastian, evidenced subtly by the clever wordplay (in the form of literary geek-bait like "I am a lesser poet/ I am Brown, Jones and Robinson") of lead single "Misleading Interpretations" and more overtly on a cover of "I'm A Cuckoo" available as a bonus track with copies of "Yellow Yesterday" bought at Disc Union outlets.

While the album focuses on diversions into country-tinged pop and rock, the defining moment is still "Animal's Olives." That song starts with an acoustic guitar, teasing similar territory as the more straightforward folk songs that came before it, but the guitar keeps repeating. Another guitar joins in, this one more psychedelic. The keyboards start up — once rustic, they now sound like they're dripping under the same influence as the guitars. The sounds all lock into a hazy-yet-formidable march that lasts for seven minutes. Just after the two-minute mark, vocals swoop in and add a touch of dreamy melancholy to it all.

The female accompaniment joining Inoue on "Animal's Olives" is provided by Miwako Shimizu, who records as Predawn. She says she enjoyed the recording process with the band.

"The recording was really smooth," she says. "It's funny because the band are not serious all the time, what they make is music that ends up kind of cute."

A current crop of indie acts gets folksy with fans

Turntable Films and Predawn are only a few of the artists in Japan currently pushing folk-inspired songs into different sonic territory:

Rayons: Billed as a solo project from Masako Nakai, Rayons merge the intimacy of folk music with classical instrumentation, mixing violins and pianos worthy of a concert hall into their songs. This year's "After The Noise Is Gone" album, featuring vocals from Predawn on several tracks, is one of 2012's best so far. (www.rayons.jp)

Olde Worlde: A large chunk of the songs appearing on musician Sohhei Numata's 2011 album, "The Lemon Shark," were intimate folk compositions complete with Neil Young-esque vocals. The rest of the record, though, embraced galloping pop obsessed with the summer and girls. (www.oldeworldemap.com)

Anna Yamada: Yamada's music relies the most on electronics of anyone on this list, but when her songs are ripped from their power outlets they become very folky. She uses looping technology to turn compositions into ethereal treats. (www.annayamada.net)

Hiraga Sachie: Her songs usually start out as simple acoustic strumalongs, but on her new album "23 Sai" she builds her tunes into stomping numbers packed with ragtime pianos, whistling and all sorts of other kitchen-sink touches. Just as impressive — how Sachie conveys an emotional vulnerability that rises above linguistic understanding. (d.hatena.ne.jp/hiragasashimi) (P.S.M.)

Shimizu started Predawn in 2008 while she was still a university student in Nagano, influenced by artists such as Sparklehorse and Radiohead. Her music is minimal, often only featuring an acoustic guitar and her gossamer voice. Her 2010 debut album, "A Bird In The Hand," featured a few instances of piano and horns, but the LP's most breathtaking moments come from stripped-down songs that emphasize her lyrics. Tracks such as "What Does It Mean" and "Suddenly" depict weighty events through small details (Shimizu asks, "What does it mean/ the movement of your eyes?" and "What does it mean/ the movement of your lips" on "What Does It Mean?" in which she refers to a departure and an inevitable goodbye).

"It's like some kind of therapy for me," Shimizu says about her approach to songwriting.

It is Shimizu's collaborations, though, that really showcase the scope of her talent. Besides the zoned-out "Animal's Olives," she was also a guest vocalist for the orchestrally minded group Rayons on January's "After the Noise Is Gone."

"Singing with strings being a part of the background music was all new to me," she says. The result of this new setting ended up making her vocals sound more fragile than on her own Predawn releases. It's some of her best singing to date, too. Predawn's solo work isn't too daring — elegant, but safe — but Shimizu's willingness to collaborate with artists outside her comfort zone results in great music. In the past, she's also teamed up with beatmaker Eccy on the 2009 track "Low On Saturday," Shimizu's softer voice melding easily into the buzzing backdrop.

"Predawn has a great and unique voice," Inoue says. "My favorite songwriters keep it simple."

Both Predawn and Turntable Films can sound simple — their music always aims to please, both projects making sure to honor the "pop" half of folk-pop. Yet they are also restless artists clearly looking for new ways to push themselves. Inoue says he wants Turntable Films to eventually move in directions that even he hasn't figured out yet.

"I want to make, in a good way," he says, "something that betrays my expectations and the expectations of my friends."

Turntable Films begin their "Yellow Yesterday" release tour at Kyoto Muse on June 3 (6:30 p.m. start; ¥2,300 in advance; [075] 223-0389). They play Fukuyama Boogie Man's Cafe Polepole in Hiroshima on June 23 (7 p.m. start; ¥2,500 in advance; [084] 925-5004); Daimyo Rooms in Fukuoka on June 24 (7 p.m. start; ¥3,000 in advance; [092] 751-0075); Tsurumai K.D Hapon in Nagoya on July 7 (7 p.m. start; ¥2,300 in advance; [052] 251-0324); Shinsaibashi Conpass in Osaka on July 8 (6:30 p.m. start; ¥2,300 in advance; [06] 6535-5569); and Shinjuku Marz in Tokyo on July 22 (6:30 p.m. start; ¥2,300 in advance; [03] 3202-8248). Predawn will open for Turntable Films at their shows in Hiroshima and Fukuoka. Predawn also plays Shibuya Quattro on May 18 (6:30 p.m. start; ¥2,500 in advance; [03] 3477-8750) and Shimokitazawa Sound Cruising in Tokyo on May 19 (5 p.m. start; ¥3,500 for daytime tickets in advance; [03] 3444-6751). For more information, visit www.turntablefilms.com and www.predawnmusic.com.

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