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Thursday, May 31, 2012

LISTENING POST

Akai Ko-en "Randori de Hyohaku wo"


Special to The Japan Times

When Tokyo post-J-pop four-piece Akai Ko-en unleashed "Tomei Nanoka, Kuro Nanoka" ("Is it Transparent, Is it Black"), its first major-label release, in February, the members explained to The Japan Times that it would shortly be followed by a companion piece — and this is it.

News photo

Where the previous mini-album contained five "proper" songs (all the odd-numbered tracks) and four interludes, this time the meat is on the five even numbers. And while the black cover design last time indicated that the songs inside were Akai Ko-en's darkest, this time the white cover symbolizes the four young women's "cuter" side.

So far, so conceptual. And "Randori de Hyohaku wo" ("Whitening at the Laundromat") does indeed contain a streak of sweetness that was absent in the previous album's prog-lite introspection: Opener "Nanba Sikusu" ("Number Six") is a rainbow-filled pop tune with funk guitar lines and childlike yelps of "Yaaaaaaaay!" in the background, as Chiaki Sato sings a jazz-tinged melody reminiscent of the group's heroine, Shiina Ringo.

But while Shiina sings like Marge Simpson with an 80-a-day habit, Sato's voice is much purer. On "Yona Yona" ("Night After Night"), rerecorded from 2011's self-released "Walk With Bremen," she adopts a higher tone, dropping staccato stabs to heighten the cute-factor.

Still, with a band as deeply creative as Akai Ko-en, it's never as simple as black and white. While these two songs may represent the band's lightest material, they are punctuated by weird noises and almost barbershop-vocal harmonies, with underlying shades of Shibuya-kei — specifically very early Cornelius and his wilfully kitsch pre-solo band, Flipper's Guitar. And as the mini-album goes on, the songs get darker, closer in their tight yet sprawling form to the band's earlier material.

On its own, this isn't Akai Ko-en's strongest batch of tunes. But what happens when you painstakingly construct a playlist that combines the two mini-albums, odds and evens in turn? And another playlist of just the ever-more-bonkers interludes? I'll leave you to discover that for yourself — though the band's playful approach to its releases is as refreshing as it was on, say, System of a Down's "Mezmerize"/"Hypnotize" two-CD set.

Akai Ko-en still seems to be building up to a record that captures the mind-blowing focused intensity of its live shows. Till then, a disc of rampant but flawed mini-epics is a pretty good second-best.


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