Rewolf is a detour for those accustomed to the shimmering neo-shoegaze of Asobi Seksu’s previous releases. This new release is the result of a brief recording stop at London’s Olympic Studios, undertaken while the band was touring the United Kingdom in 2008. For the Olympic session, Asobi Seksu stripped down its lineup to the pair of vocalist Yuki Chikudate and guitarist James Hanna, who deliver acoustic-driven reworkings of songs from throughout the band’s career, plus a cover of Hope Sandoval’s “Suzanne”. Removed from layers of guitar effect, Asobi Seksu is able to highlight its songcraft on Rewolf, creating an album that sparkles with melody.
In lieu of the New York City band’s standard veils of electric guitar noise, on Rewolf Chikudate and Hanna restructure their selected tracks so they are driven by acoustic guitar, piano, and Chikudate’s gentle, angelic vocals. The band’s lineup is paired down, but the songs aren’t. Asobi Seksu compensates for the absence of the full band and its attendant guitar pedals via wonderfully crafted arrangements and Chikudate’s judicious use of harmony overdubs. Upon my first listen to the new version of “Breathe into Glass” that opens the album, I was immediately struck by how touchingly beautiful every element sounded working together, particularly Chikudate’s singing.
Do note that Rewolf is not a radical reinvention of the band’s music. The compositions themselves are largely unchanged. Merely one form of instrumentation has been exchanged for another. Those fine melodies were always there. The main difference is that on Rewolf melody is paramount, and not as reliant on texture as it generally is in Asobi Seksu’s music. The band’s recordings are typically a wash of sound filled with melodies and harmonies, affording little space for the compositions to breathe. That sound is why fans love the band in the first place, but these acoustic recordings do allow Asobi Seksu to emphasize elements that normally have to share sonic real estate. Compare the original version of “Walk on the Moon” from the album to its new incarnation on Rewolf. On the original version, Chikudate’s vocals float amongst the band’s warbling guitar effects, only bobbing upward in the mix in tandem with the rest of the music. In the new arrangement, acoustic guitar rhythms form the song’s foundation, allowing Chikudate to sit atop as the focus of the piece, added by tasteful chiming melody lines. This reshuffling of sonic priorities (aided by mixer Billy Pavone) works wonders for the song, as it does for the entire album.
For an album that sounds so lovely, it’s only real flaw is that the songs are largely indistinct. Every track has the same rhythmic acoustic guitar strumming, the same tinkles of chimes and piano keys, the same airy vocals. The situation improves a bit in the middle of the record, which features tracks like the piano-driven ballad “Blind Little Rain” (where Chikudate favors the higher end of her register to delightful effect) and the breezy Euro-pop of “Urusai Tori”. The melodies are certainly beautiful and affecting throughout, but even after several listens I still have to refer to the tracklisting to tell certain songs apart. However, the album does work wonderfully as a whole, demanding a full listen every time it starts playing.
Rewolf isn’t a complete revelation. The instruments may be different, but the song structures are identical. A listener won’t discover anything new they couldn’t have gotten by listening to Asobi Seksu’s previous three albums intently. If you’re looking for the daring next step in Asobi Seksu’s sonic evolution, this is not it. Instead, Rewolf is nothing more ambitious than a very good album of acoustic renderings. Still, it is compelling in how it continuously highlights little corners of the band’s songs and musicianship. It’s not an essential listen, but it is an illuminating and enjoyable one.