In the gutter, surrounded by tinsel and glitter
No disrespect to the rest of the band, but the real reason I love Fujiya & Miyagi is David Best’s vocals. Not lyrics, mind you, which are fine if a bit word salad-y at times; vocals. 2006’s stellar Transparent Things paid faithful homage to the pulsating, repetitive grooves of ‘70s Krautrock, yes, but these days it’s not like F&M are the only band doing so. No, the real glory there was the way that Best would rip into phrases like “And we were / Just pretend / Ing to be / Japanese”, “A photocopier and Yellow Magic Orchestra”, or “You got to know / Your place on the food chain” like they were particularly juicy soliloquies and he was a talented enough actor to know just how much ham they needed. His perfect use of “witchu” on “Collarbone” alone was a thing of beauty.
Lightbulbs from 2008 was a bit underwhelming because the band (which started out as the duo of Best as Miyagi and Steve Lewis as Fujiya and now seems to have settled into a quartet with Matt Hainsby and Lee Adams) focused so much on messing around with the rhythms they were using that they forgot to write the kind of naggingly compelling melodies that worked so well before. With a few exceptions, especially first single “Knickerbocker”, a perfect distillation of the band’s sound, and “Goosebumps”, which sounds like Best singing over the end of “In the Court of the Crimson King” to surprisingly moving effect and includes both “dodecahedron kites” and “Stella Artois mixed with beef burger” for him to toy with, the whole thing sounded a little flat.
Thankfully Ventriloquizzing is much feistier, for Best and Fujiya & Miyagi both. The music still expands the band’s palette away from the wonderfulyl straightforward surge of Transparent Things, but it feels like now they’ve worked the kinks out of their setup, and the jauntily menacing “Sixteen Shades of Black & Blue” rumbles along just as satisfyingly as the more Kraut-y “YoYo”, and the stripped-down “Minestrone” works just as well as the stately swells of “Spilled Milk”. And best of all, these songs see Best give maybe his finest performances; certainly they’re among his most fun.
“Minestrone” is priceless just for the part where Satan reveals the titular soup to Best, not to mention the line “the Devil was caucasian”, while “Taiwanese Roots” is catnip for Best aficionados from the title on down (which gets both a pause and a slur, both strong tools in the singer’s arsenal). He even finds time to interpolate a bit of “You Got the Love” into the intro to the wonderful “Tinsel & Glitter”. As always, Best’s tone manages to be both coolly removed and marvellously insistent, wryly compassionate and hilariously bitchy, and always a marvel of sound over sense without ever quite losing the sense in the sound. Most other singers wouldn’t be able to do much with a line like “these little pills may give you dizzy spells” or “you don’t know which side your bread is buttered on”, but Best makes them foreboding and silly and knowing and even kind of wise, all at once. It’s not as if there’s no emotional impact in Fujiya & Miyagi’s world, just that it’s one where God’s compassionate, omniscient voice never shuts up and can never quite disguise the faintest trace of a smirk.
But as much as I could dine for days on Best’s idiosyncratic, addictive phrasings, Ventriloquizzing might be Fujiya & Miyagi’s best album to date (although Transparent Things is still a strong contender) because of the way his performances mesh with a newly impressive band. Like Lightbulbs, Ventriloquizzing is more formally straightforward than Transparent Things, but here everything works and Fujiya & Miyagi nail a much wider range of textures and emotions than they had previously. The descending pianos and syncopated drumbeat of the warm “Ok” or the spacerock drive and increasing desperation of the title track both work flawlessly, and the closing “Universe” builds itself up to the point where “you/are/not/the/cen/tre/of/the/u/ni/verse/there is no centre of the universe” is a genuinely stirring moment. Of course, the glory of Fujiya & Miyagi is that it’s also a pretty funny one.