Every month, Memories of Shibuya will be taking a look at a different artist or group, with featured songs – one per week – highlighting the peaks (and, occasionally, troughs) of their musical career.
Concluding our four-part series on Towa Tei a couple days late (all apologies, sometimes life gets in the way of these things), this time around we take a look at the man’s work in the last decade – work which is still ongoing, with his latest single having been released just last month.
1994’s Future Listening!, Towa Tei’s debut album as a solo artist, stands out as the most striking oddity in his back catalogue – its assortment of guest musicians playing live instruments, as opposed to the minimal keyboard-and-sampler productions that Tei has made his name on ever since, make it often sound more like a Pizzicato Five album than a Towa Tei one. Starting with 1997’s Sound Museum, he began to move away from using studio musicians, albums from this period often only featuring one or two such contributions, and by 2005’s Flash he had done away with that sort of guest player entirely. Preferring to interact with others as little as possible during the album creation process, his recent releases often feature collaborations arranged entirely through the internet – he has worked with German singer Taprikk Sweezee many times, for example, although he admits that they only ever interacted online and have never met in person.
Along with the move away from live instrumentation and vocals recorded in the same room as him, the years since Future Listening! also found Tei doing away from the kitschy lounge-pop fusion of French and Latin American elements he made his name on, favouring more strictly dance-oriented material. It could even be argued that, in a way, Tei has come full circle since his beginnings in Deee-Lite, as his upbeat dance music is closer to the sound of the early ’90s group he got his start with than the more identifiably Shibuya-kei material of his early solo work. Of course, it would be hard to imagine Deee-Lite releasing something as deliberately weird as “Wordy” as a single, but c’est le Tei.
While one can easily get caught up in mourning the absence of Towa Tei’s old style – especially as contemporary Shibuya-kei revivalists tend to focus more on the neo-acoustic elements than the bossa nova and jazz elements (although it needs to be said that we at Memories of Shibuya are eternally grateful to pertorika for keeping the latter alive) – his new material isn’t without its considerable charms as well. Recent Towa Tei albums are invariably characterized by a playful, fun spirit, album titles like Big Fun, Sunny and Lucky making no secret of the man’s modus operandi. This is not music to contemplate existence to on a grey, rainy evening; he makes music to have fun to, and he’s damn good at it. Songs like this week’s featured selection, the Ringo Sheena collaboration “Apple,” blend Tei’s sample-happy aesthetic with killer basslines and irresistible grooves – his insular nature seems to have led to him refining his songcraft to a razor-sharp point, and pieces of pop perfection like “Apple” are the end result of that. He may have given up on the old Shibuya-kei sound (insofar as a genre as diverse as Shibuya-kei can really be said to have a definite “sound”), but unlike some other scene veterans, he actually found a new one that worked.