Shibuya-kei leaning idol group Negicco is unquestionably the jewel in the crown of Tower Records’ T-Palette label, both their best-selling act and the one the label consistently takes the most risks with. It would be unthinkable to hear anything as sonically varied – without ever falling into the trap of “weird Japan” wackiness like too many contemporary idol groups – as Negicco’s output has been from any of T-Palette’s other acts, but, within the hallowed ground of a new Negicco album, anything is possible. Their second full-length on T-Palette (following 2013’s cheekily-named Melody Palette), Rice&Snow sees a host of new producers and a few returning talents collaborating with the label’s signature act. The multitude of divergent styles, from Koushi Miura of Kuchiroro’s stark minimalism to the sugar-high ecstacy of Takao Tajima’s twin seasonally-themed contributions, could have potentially led to a “too many cooks” scenario, but how does the album hold up?
Idol group albums are, typically, not intended to be appraised on their merits as collections of music. This isn’t to say that idol group albums are usually bad, although they often are; merely that their quality stands completely perpendicular to fans’ reasoning behind the purchase decision. As so little of what makes Japanese idol performers appealing – their bright smiles, choreographed dance routines, charming interview behaviour, etc. – is able to survive the transition into the sensory isolation of recorded music, an album is more commonly approached as a way to give a beloved group a spot on the Oricon charts – particularly when the album has many slightly-different versions for the die-hard fan to purchase (Rice&Snow has two). Albums also serve as singles compilations for a group’s more frugally-minded fans, with Rice&Snow being kind enough to this demographic to feature the B-side from the Hikari no Spur single in addition to the A-sides from all four Negicco singles released since Melody Palette. With CD singles in Japan still retailing for upwards of ¥1000, these full albums are a bargain when compared to buying the individual singles, and this fact is often reflected in album-only tracks that could charitably be described as “worthless.”
Negicco is not a typical idol group, though, and Rice&Snow is most definitely intended to be appraised as a proper album. Far from the usual idol-group scenario of songwriters being kept behind the scenes as the girls take center stage, the press for Rice&Snow loudly trumpets the assortment of Shibuya-kei luminaries handling composition duties on the album – one of many hints that T-Palette is intended, for better or worse, to be the label of choice for the discerning idol wotaku. Just as labelmates Vanilla Beans pay tribute to the long-neglected talent behind many of Japan’s greatest pop songs, the girls of Negicco work hard to bring Shibuya-kei back – whether or not that particular musical direction would have been the first choice for any of them is as trivial as an album track on another idol group’s album.
Who are the Negicco girls, though? Their names are given as Nao☆, Megu and Kaede, and they got their start as Negicco back in 2003, before the youngest member Kaede had even turned 12. The group’s name translates, roughly, as “green onion girls,” since the group (which originally had 5 members) was formed as part of a PR campaign by the Japanese Agricultural Cooperative to promote the sale of locally-grown green onions (“negi”) throughout the girls’ native Niigata prefecture. While not exactly as humiliating of a background as that of fellow T-Palette group lyrical school, who got their start promoting sex-toy brand Tenga as Tengal6, hawking leeks as junior idols certainly isn’t something that would inspire a great deal of pride in any normal human, and the girls have never been anything but frank about their ridiculous genesis. “People won’t take you seriously when you’re dancing with vegetables,” one of the girls said in an MTV81 interview, and Negicco’s rise has been as inspiring as it is completely improbable. That they started out as “local idols” yet their latest music video was shot all the way over in Finland is just one of many wholly unlikely details that have come to characterize Negicco’s career, and so the fact that they’ve been positioned as the spearhead of an unexpected Shibuya-kei revival is perversely unsurprising – when everything about the group’s history has been completely absurd, it only makes sense that they would be put in such a far-fetched situation. After all, if a group has survived for 12 years since being started for the express purpose of selling vegetables, isn’t anything else trumped by default?
Although Negicco as a group is certainly disarming (hard to harbour any ill will towards a group so keenly aware of their own preposterous situation), it’s no surprise that the talent behind the scenes was the focus of so much of the pre-release hype for Rice&Snow. Opening with the absolutely stellar “Triple! WONDERLAND,” a fizzy, hyperkinetic bit of synth-pop heaven from former Cymbals drummer Hiroyasu Yano (one of two producers on the album directly connected to smoky-voiced Shibuya-kei sex symbol Asako Toki, who served as frontwoman for Yano’s former band), it’s damned near impossible to care about how sorely lacking Negicco’s vocal performances invariably are. On many of the album’s best songs, the girls serve less as singers than as cheerleaders, spelling the group’s name out on multiple occasions to make the connection as explicit as possible. Yano’s frothy concoction may be completely empty, its big flashy synth stabs and city-pop slap bass distracting from the fact that the song is actually just shy of tuneless upon closer observation, but in the realm of idol music, empty bluster is content. You’re not supposed to get a full meal with idol pop – an idol album should ideally be a starter of cake, followed by ice cream, followed by ice cream cake. Binging and purging is the order of the day, and Negicco’s producers oblige with style to spare.
The energy level on Rice&Snow doesn’t quite exhaust the listener like T-Palette releases are occasionally wont to do – I would be hard-pressed to find any reason to recommend an Up Up Girls!! album as anything other than a workout soundtrack – but the default mode is most certainly a hyperactive one. After numerous fake-outs (a bit of ’90s hip-hop here, a bit of idol-singer balladry there), “Tokimeki no Headliner” picks up exactly where “Triple! WONDERLAND” left off – giving the listener more of the same, and from another Asako Toki collaborator to boot. The decision to have 2013’s “Headliner” (which was Negicco’s most commercially-successful single until “Hikari no Spur” dethroned it last month) following 2014’s “Triple! WONDERLAND” rather than the other way around is the only questionable choice made on an otherwise excellently-sequenced album, but it’s a minor quirk at most. Gouta Nishidera, frontman of Shibuya-kei inspired pop group NONA REEVES and songwriter for a veritable who’s-who of Japanese pop music, is one of the most consistently inspired writers and performers currently working in Japan (his group’s inspired take on “SUPER☆STAR” was an unquestionable highlight of last year’s excellent Why Not Clammbon!? album), and even though “Headliner” is unfortunately overshadowed by the bombast that precedes it, it’s still a fine song by all means. And, unlike on the aforementioned Up Up Girls!! albums, the listener actually gets a reprieve from the “get up and dance” energy after the initial two tracks.
That first reprieve comes in the form of Hikari no Spur B-side “1000% Kataomoi,” now boasting a “featuring” credit for the contribution of Shiggy Jr. frontwoman Tomoko Ikeda. It’s still a bouncy, fun little song, particularly due to some carefully-applied synthesizers that add a welcome touch of extra flavour to its airy, jazz-inspired pop cocktail. While “Hikari no Spur” itself (featured on the album) suffered from vocals that seemed constantly at odds with the rest of the song, the music and singing peacefully coexist on “1000%” – possibly because, unlike “Spur,” the song isn’t trying for a high-energy approach. When the energy level rises, producer connie (lower-case spelling intentional) usually ups the application of vocoder proportionately, but such an approach wouldn’t have worked on “Spur” so he opted instead for some particularly ugly pitch-correction – despite its impressive sales and gorgeous musical backing, “Hikari no Spur” remains one of Negicco’s less-impressive singles due mostly to the mishandled vocals. The Shiggy Jr.-assisted song, however, has no such issues, remaining as much fun in 2015 as it was on that breakthrough single last year.
The song following “1000% Kataomoi,” the Katsutoshi Kitagawa-produced “Cream Soda Love,” is not among the album’s high points. A shame, as it not only marks the first collaboration between Negicco and the producer behind ROUND TABLE – the group of die-hard Shibuya-kei devotees that brought a touch of class to the barren wasteland of middle-oughts anime music – but also is one of only two songs on the album with lyrics not written by connie. Group member Nao☆ (the only one of the three with unshared lyrical credits to her name) wrote the lyrics to “Cream Soda Love”, and as she told Tokyo Girls Update the song is inspired by “the feelings of women who are cute and excited when in love” – a sentiment worthy of the sweet trifle that the song most definitely is, but it only suffers from being placed among so many sweeter trifles. Not bad, but considering ROUND TABLE’s track record it so easily could have been much better.
“Sunshine Nihonkai” is unlikely to be named Negicco’s best song either, but the Takao Tajima-assisted number is certainly a step up from the ambivalence-inspiring selection that precedes it. Functioning as the summery counterpart to the wintertime vacation tune “Hikari no Spur” (in an age where the only certainty is that your money is going to be worth less and less with each coming year, the need to vicariously take vacations through idol-group music can become a reality with distressing speed), Tajima draws from his Original Love playbook to create a song that is as pleasant and fun as it is completely unremarkable. Trying to criticize a song like “Sunshine Nihonkai” often seems like critiquing a family dinner; yes, there may not be any originality at play, and you’ve most certainly had better elsewhere, but you can’t fault something for not being anything it was never aspiring to be. Modest ambition has been the name of Tajima’s game ever since his days in Pizzicato Five (the wheel certainly wasn’t getting reinvented under his watch), and his status as a music-industry lifer is reflected in the technical proficiency he brings to every sparkling-clean composition. You don’t go to Tajima when you want to blow someone’s mind, but you can always count on him to approach music-making like a true professional.
Stylistically, Rice&Snow is split between the neo-Shibuya-kei stylings of about half of the songs, and an incredibly energetic sort of ’80s synth-pop throwback. While the Shibuya-kei selections occasionally falter (“Cream Soda Love,” “Hikari no Spur”), the electronica hits its mark every time. The girls’ unimpressive singing lends itself incredibly well to the application of vocoder and other effects, and the producers seem to be having a blast with songs like “Futari no Yuugi” – the album’s second Hiroyasu Yano contribution. Yano has Negicco accompanied by a Zapp & Roger-style vintage vocoder throughout, proving that the funk guitars that accompanied the wall of sound on “Triple! WONDERLAND” were far from a fluke. It’s silly, it’s funky, and most of all it’s fun; all qualities that Rice&Snow has in spades, even with a few lacklustre songs here and there.
There are weak tracks, but the highs on Rice&Snow are exactly the kind of thing that make it so hard for us to turn our backs on pop music. Devoid of any lyrical or musical “substance” deeper than the “wow, listen to this!” factor of Masakazu Ichise’s drumming on the Koushi Miura-composed “BLUE, RED, GREEN & GONE” or the sci-fi weirdness of “Space Nekojaracy,” Rice&Snow is not the kind of album you would throw on to impress someone with your musical sophistication. As an idol group release, though, it’s just about as good as it gets; not often that one gets to put in an idol album and be treated to a Shibuya-kei smorgasbord like the one on display here. None of the three girls in Negicco can sing worth a damn, but the music is what counts and Rice&Snow delivers excellently on that front.