Shibuya-kei and cover albums have a very peculiar relationship; while tribute albums are the bane of most musical genres, most commonly the province of artists using their versions of familiar songs in the often-vain hope of sparking interest in their original material, tribute albums often serve as a useful “who’s who” of Shibuya-kei at the time of their release. The Shibuya-kei tribute album also serves as an endorsement of the artist whose songs are being covered; Gainsbourg Made in Japan is just one of many examples of this phenomenon in action. So, for veteran Shibuya-kei outfit Clammbon, whose Why Not Clammbon!? celebrates 20 years, the accomplishment is doubly significant; it lets them throw a musical reunion of sorts, while also passing the torch to a new generation of Shibuya-kei inspired performers. How do the performers fare, though?
In the realm of international Shibuya-kei fandom, there’s a very noticeable divide between the artists who have been signed to record labels outside of Japan, and the ones who haven’t. As Clammbon belongs in the latter group, it’s likely no exaggeration to say that half of the people reading this review have never heard a Clammbon song before right now. Thankfully, that’s no hindrance to enjoying this absolutely fantastic album. Clammbon’s compositions lend themselves amazingly well to a wide variety of musical styles, from the tongue-in-cheek dance-pop of NONA REEVES’s euphoric version of “SUPER☆STAR” (quite possibly worth the price of admission by itself) to the backmasking-heavy psychedelia of Buffalo Daughter’s reliably unconventional approach on “Rock Climbing.” Although it unquestionably suffers from the problems that plague any compilation – sometimes the abrupt changes in genre get to be a bit jarring, and the fact that every represented artist only gets one song on the album means that you’re often left wanting more that you don’t get on the album – it’s a damn fine compilation for what that’s worth.
Although the majority of the selections on the album are absolutely fantastic – I’m not exaggerating when I say I do legitimately love most of them – some clearly stand out above the others. Downy’s take on “5716,” with its downbeat Britpop atmosphere and Ryuuhiko Akiyama’s virtuoso drumming, is one such high point; as is a surprisingly warm version of “Ahoy!” from the usually incredibly distant Salyu x Salyu. Her version of “Ahoy!” could hardly be any further removed from the austerity of songs like “Jibun ga Inai,” and it’s lovely hearing her showing actual enthusiasm again. I had already mentioned the brilliant NONA REEVES track, but I’ll say it again here: their “SUPER☆STAR” would be worth the price of admission even if the rest of the album was much, much worse than it actually is. With its Zapp & Roger vocoders and delightfully kitsch synthesizers, it sounds like what Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories might have sounded like, were that album less devoted to 5+ minute experiments in how much repetition the listener can take before they get fed up and skip to the next song. It’s musical bliss, in so many words, cotton candy pop that’s all fun and no substance. An indulgence of the sort that could easily become overwhelming were it not so perfectly relegated to a single track. As it stands, with its fluffiness counterbalanced by things like the minimalist beauty of Ichiko Aoba’s absolutely heartbreaking acoustic rendition of “Ame” (which manages to outdo both the original and the “Re-Ame” version it most obviously takes its inspiration from) it’s just one of many silly moments on an album that never stays stuck on one setting for very long.
There are low points, of course – the generic pop-rock of Straightener’s blandly conventional take on album opener “Folklore” doesn’t exactly fill one with optimism for the surprisingly brilliant album ahead, and the selections from GREAT3 and Husking Bee don’t do much to stick around in your mind very long either. The interpretation of “Aru Kodou” by the Shuuta Hasunuma Philharmonic (whose female vocalist is nowhere near as engaging as smoky-voiced Ikuko Harada was on the original) is an incredibly strange beast, an airy (although pleasant) steel drum-assisted Shibuya-kei take on the song that makes a left-field turn into a surprisingly affecting bit of melodramatic hip-hop in its closing moments; the strength of the hip-hop outro really makes me wish it had been longer, ideally with the preceding song cast off for the more musically interesting aspect. The majority of the album is still great, with a few OK tracks hardly ruining the vastly superior numbers of the album’s successes.
While it does seem a bit unfair to the band to recommend an album of Clammbon covers to people who have never even heard of the band before, it’s one of the year’s best releases regardless and I do wholeheartedly recommend it even to people who don’t know whether Clammbon is a band or a person.