music, reviews

Single review: Negicco – Hikari no Spur

(Note: review based on digital version from OTOTOY, which includes bonus tracks only available on disc in the 2-disc special edition. The single is also available in a vanilla version, on both CD and 7″ vinyl, and in another version which adds a bonus DVD that features the “Hikari no Spur” music video as well as a making-of feature for said clip. Memories of Shibuya tries to obtain the most complete version of any release to be reviewed, so album or single releases with bonus tracks will always be favoured.)

As the flagship group for Tower Records’ T-Palette label, Negicco has been instrumental in bringing Shibuya-kei sounds to the wasteland of “idol group” music ever since their debut on the label in 2011. Having performed songs composed by Shibuya-kei luminaries such as Cymbals’ Hiroyasu Yano, Pizzicato Five’s Yasuharu Konishi, and Asako Toki and HALCALI collaborator Gouta Nishidera in the past, this latest release finds them working with Original Love frontman (and former Pizzicato Five member) Takao Tajima.

The “idol” phenomenon, endemic to Asian culture although having rough parallels in the West, is not only to blame for much of the worst popular music of the past century, but also has such wildly disproportionate representation on Japanese music charts as to give the impression that the Japanese don’t much care for anything other than it. The Oricon yearly singles chart for 2013’s top 40 spots only had 3 non-idol performers represented, with the highest-ranked non-idol single (from astonishingly long-running rock group Southern All Stars) coming in at number 17. Idol dominance was a bit less prevalent in the album rankings, with idol groups and performers only taking 6 out of the top 10 spots, but none of the 4 remaining slots were occupied by new material – all 4 were best-of compilations, 2 of which were from the same group (veteran duo B’z, current record-holders for the title of best-selling group in Japan). Clearly, Japan really, really loves idols – so, naturally, it must be asked: what is an idol?

The term “idol,” in the Japanese pop context, refers to performers, both male and female, who may be primarily known as singers, actors, dancers or models, but traditionally function as all of the above and more. Idols are non-specific “talents” who aren’t generally known for being especially good at anything they do, wholly unencumbered by any of that “artistic integrity” stuff that critics like to get all fussy over. While idols look to the uninitiated like mediocre celebrities famous simply for being famous, there is a complex psychology behind their appeal, a topic people have devoted entire books to figuring out. Idols inspire fanatical devotion, to the degree where relying on fans buying multiple copies of a single or album release is a tactic that even small labels like T-Palette have been able to use. It’s not only music charts where idols dominate; WWII drama The Eternal Zero, 2013’s third highest-grossing film in Japan (trailing Disney productions The Wind Rises and Monsters University), had idol performers filling all of its star roles, and it’s only due to the combined might of foreign blockbusters (such as the lamentably high-ranking Seth MacFarlane vehicle Ted) and animated movies that the film charts don’t resemble the music ones more closely. The personality cults that arise around idol performers are very good business, which is why it’s not uncommon for contemporary groups to have 9 or more members – a more-is-more approach represented most purely by the bloated ranks of Yasushi Akimoto’s 48-member supergroups AKB48, NMB48, SKE48 and HKT48. As idols are paid low salaries rather than royalties, having so many members is an effective way to hedge one’s bets – with 48 members to a group, chances are one of those girls is going to inspite a fanatical wotaku (idol fan, colloquially) to buy hundreds of copies of the group’s latest single.

The advertising industry also relies heavily on idol endorsements, with the pretty and familiar faces of popular idols selling any kind of product imaginable. The stereotype of Japan as a hyper-consumerist state is most purely represented by the idol phenomenon, as every idol brings with him or her an endless list of products to buy – magazines, photo books, albums, movies, DVDs, candy bars, what-have-you – that fans will gladly consume in the name of supporting their idol. With all this established, it becomes incredibly obvious why Tower Records has been eager to get into the game, but where their approach – their creation of neo-Shibuya-kei idols – differs is in the focus on the actual music. While songs by other idol groups are most often the work of no-name producers notable less for their ear for a catchy tune than for their ability to push out formulaic pop like clockwork, Tower Records took direct inspiration from the success achieved by other labels in getting capsule’s Yasutaka Nakata to produce for various idol acts. With a precedent having thus been established, it was only a matter of finding the right people for the job, so naturally the company with a flagship store in Shibuya turned to members of the once-popular Shibuya-kei scene to provide music for their new idol groups.

While it would be nice to be able to get fully behind the neo-Shibuya-kei idol sound, “Hikari no Spur”, the latest release from T-Palette’s three-member girl group Negicco, unfortunately does a bang-up job of highlighting exactly why more idol songs don’t sound like Shibuya-kei. Shibuya-kei singers are almost never presented with much polish – even when using vocoders or other effects, the intent is clearly to emphasize the uneven aspects of a vocal performance rather than negate them. It’s practically impossible to imagine what someone like Kahimi Karie’s unique, expressive and often heartbreaking voice would have sounded like with the kind of autotuned pop production that the Negicco girls’ vocals are embellished with, yet T-Palette’s idol groups wed that exact sound to music reminiscent of Shibuya-kei’s golden age. Contemporary idol groups’ music, by contrast, is most often a sanitized approximation of zeitgeist-friendly electronica, a style practically tailor-made for the sterile, blatantly processed vocals that pop producers favour.

Takao Tajima’s composition for the title track is upbeat, fun, and mixed way too quiet. Combining chintzy muzak synthesizers with a warm bassline, Tajima’s own ska-inspired guitars and light jazz drumming, the instrumental (graciously provided on the CD single) is a heavenly slice of Shibuya-kei perfection; perfection that, unfortunately, is all but ruined by the overproduced vocals mixed far too loud over top of its sparkling brilliance. The B-side “1000% Kataomoi,” with music by indie group Shiggy Jr., doesn’t quite reach the same heights as the song it’s coupled with, but the disconnect between the vocals and music is less jarring in its case. You can still tell that the music and vocals were recorded separately, quite possibly at different studios or the same studio on different days, but the younger musicians have an understandably closer connection to pop music in the year 2014 than a man who first made his name in the late 1980s does. The production techniques employed on Negicco’s songs didn’t even exist when Tajima made his debut back in 1987, and they make a terrible fit for his retro-focused Shibuya-kei sound; luckily for Hikari no Spur, though, the bonus tracks on the single have no such difficulties.

With two remixes on a bonus disc (or, in the digital version I purchased, as tracks 5 and 6), the final selections on Hikari no Spur are far more conventional than their preceding Shibuya-kei hybrids. While still not quite as trendy as the dubstep and electro-house sounds of their competition, the synth-heavy mixes of “Koi no EXPRESS TRAIN” and “Soushisouai” suit their vocals far more comfortably – the former being my personal favourite song on the single for this exact reason. The latter’s YMCK-esque synthesizers lend it a feeling of carefree playfulness that’s only helped by the best hook of the bunch – it can be hard to resist the urge to chant the title phrase along with the girls – and both selections suggest that Negicco’s songs can only benefit from hindsight. The problematic disconnection between the vocals and music is easily rectifiable in the hands of a talented remixer, and it gets me wondering what future remixes of “Hikari no Spur” and “1000% Kataomoi” might sound like. Truthfully, though, if it were an option I would most like to hear a cover version of the A-side. Same instrumental, but a different singer; or at the very least a stripped-down demo take of the Negicco version. Maybe a future live release will provide the latter – but until then, Hikari no Spur is an uneven, but still mostly worthwhile, release from T-Palette’s main group.

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