The new EP from Shugo Tokumaru starts with what might be his most straightforward pop song yet—“Rum Hee”, a gorgeous, glockenspiel-buoyed tune that should be on every iPod Nano or Volkswagen Golf commercial from now until whenever. It’s too early to relegate this talented multi-instrumentalist to the scrapheap of “underappreciated talent” championed by a few critics and the few bands they perform with—and who knows, maybe that catapulting commercial will come. If it does, we’ll relish the opportunity to have seen him play in small American venues like the Cake Shop in New York. In keeping with his inclusive, open-arms music, Tokumaru chalks up unlikely fans with consummate ease. Recently he’s been playing with members of the National and Beirut (you can listen to a session they recorded for KEXP here).
That KEXP session includes a charming mini-interview with the band, and with Shugo himself (largely with the translation help of his manager). One of the comments he made then was to point out the difference in reception of his music between US (I’m going to substitute “Western”) audiences and the ones back home. I have no idea how Tokumaru is viewed on the Japanese popular music axis (which has, of course, its own interesting wrinkles). But he’s greeted here as a sort of fascinating curiosity, this soft-spoken and retiring multi-instrument-playing wonder, a model of the “bedroom pop” songwriter.
The starting point for any newcomer to Tokumaru’s music should still be “Parachute”. The song’s video on YouTube is suitably cute, but the song itself, as in previous raves, is just as refreshing now. The “alternate version” featured on Rum Hee, a tone lower than on Exit, plays more gently, more wistfully. But it doesn’t have the same impact, as if Tokumaru’s treading too carefully over his own material. Each of these is a sharp contrast to the live version of “Parachute”, which is more fragile but also more vital. Live, as on the KEXP studio session and an acoustic set Tokumaru recorded for Daytrotter.com, his music has more of a rickety, homespun quality than is on show on Rum Hee. It would be nice, eventually, to have a live album or more organic rendition of this sound on record.
Instead we have the Rum Hee EP, which offers three new songs, a handful of alternate versions of older material, and a couple of remixes. The rather slight release barely placates us for an anticipated fourth LP—none has been yet announced. And the alternate versions, though charming, can’t match the originals. The remixes of “Rum Hee” may interest Tokumaru fans. Deerhoof remake the song as a rootless comment on itself. And the Oorutaichi version, after opening as glitchy IDM-type electronica, hits the jackpot in a crescendoing overdub that eventually hijacks the song with stuttering echo.
We like “experimental” pop singers because, well, as Barthes (via James Wood) has it, “‘I love you’ is the most clichéd thing anyone can say”. Though most of us can’t really tell whether this is actually what Tokumaru’s songs are about, his humble musicianship and appetite for innovation will continue to generate appreciative listeners. Whether or not he lands that lucrative commercial.