Loveless in the Time of Cholera
What is in a name? Everything, or at least one would hope. At a time when band names increasingly reflect a culture of irony, quantity, and youth-obsessed one-upsmanship more than a soul or ethos, Nagisa Ni Te is an anachronism as it fully embraces its dated namesake, a reference to Neil Young’s 1974 LP On the Beach. The collaboration of Org Records head Shinji Shibayama and partner Masako Takeda, Nagisa Ni Te willfully dates itself by conjuring yippie folk and psychedelic touches. However, what appears a throwback on the surface reveals itself as timeless perspective. Bucking the Nowness of knowing, the band opts for lucid observations; comments instead of critiques. The spare vocabulary of the duo’s music speaks with neither smack-of-the-forehead profundity nor forgettable whim like last night’s television, yet feels stately as each word, each phrase is written, sung, and performed with exact care. The band’s namesake is fully realized in its work: the music just is, a place, a moment in time, and an expression of such.
For Nagisa Ni Te’s sixth release, Dream Sounds, the band rerecords past works with a thoughtfulness that condenses its being into a mere 40 minutes. Though the duo chooses to look back, thus inviting Jagjaguwar’s estimation of the EP as the “closest… to a greatest hits record”, Nagisa Ni Te projects neither nostalgia nor a critical need to reinvent. Instead, the band breezes through selections from the noted 1995 album On the Love Beach (“Nagisa no watashi (On the Beach)”) and 1998’s True World and Me (“Hontou no sekai (True World)”, “Hashiru no kanji (Anxiety)”, “Taiyou no sekai” (The True Sun)”) with little fuss and great ease. Though some songs border on epic in terms of length (album closer “Sun” clocks in at over 20 minutes), they never sound belabored or overblown; no song is ever performed on a scale larger than itself. Instead, each song is approached with the tender affection of an old friend, as if to underscore the eternal sunshine of Nagisa Ni Te’s music.
Dream Sounds excels early on by establishing and maintaining a consistent clip and feel. The opening “World” takes over two minutes to state the first verse, exemplifying the band’s patience and leisurely pace. The performance transcends time by allowing brief and abstract images to hold the weight of the song: blue skies, a rocking boat, and soap bubbles. “World” thus exemplifies Nagisa Ni Te’s uniquely non-Western approach to Western pop in its aesthetic—abstraction as a medium of explicit communication—in addition to its performance—its even paced melody and off-beat punctuations owe more to turn-of-the-century Japanese bar pop than Western swing-based R&B or rock ‘n’ roll. Regardless, the recording is remarkable less for form than its substance. Nagisa Ni Te plays sensibly, always supporting the composition: a sustained organ for atmosphere during verses, background vocal harmonies at key peaks, brief bass rumbles for tension during the bridge. And “World” feels consistently warm as a result of Shibayama’s complete abandon and flail, Takeda’s frail earnestness, a consistent characteristic throughout Sounds.
The leisurely pace is broken briefly during “Anxiety”, an up tempo, jangly rocker. A stiff backbeat, deliriously sloppy rhythms and fuzzed out guitar leads roll over and loop as Takeda repeats her verses with subtle variations, exhibiting the band’s characteristic ability to create tension through repetition. While the original song title translates literally to “The Sensation of Running”, Alan Cummings’ (likely not the actor) lyric translations favor a darker interpretation: “Within the green / I lock this in / That’s my wish” (although the last line sung of the first two verses vary from the printed lyrics and can be interpreted as, “Also lock me in”). The song has a subtler quality that is neither completely negative nor positive, as Takeda sings with precision and force, building toward a final verse that unfolds, “Unlock this / And unlock me” (writer’s translation). Such hope remains the true constant of a band that conjures a romanticism that is more bleary-eyed than weary, morning hope rather than mourning hope.
“Beach” builds on the bridge established by “Anxiety” and simmers the album down by wafting through like a summer breeze. Lazily and hazily strummed guitars, huffing harmonicas, and Takeda’s tender reading evoke both a stark image of monochromatic beauty and an elegy of loss. Yet, the performance perfectly captures the charm and humor of the group: the album’s cover of a soft pink bunny carving a deep blue wave stands in contrast like Takeda and Shibayama’s playful call and response:
Shibayama: I know
Takeda: Wakara nai no (I don’t know anymore)
Shibayama: I don’t know
Takeda: Wakatte iru no (I already know)
Although the track’s name is also emblematic of Nagisa ni te’s comparison to Neil Young, there is nary the cracked sunshine nor leftist fuck-offs of the old crazy horse. Crunchy guitars close the song, but Nagisa ni te leave behind mostly the sweet smell of salty air.
The sweeping “Sun” both closes the record and condenses the established ideas and themes of Sounds. Guitars jangle, a mellotron builds, and a synthesizer washes in and out like John Woo wind for over five minutes before a melody reminiscent of “World” brings the record back full circle. Nature is again evoked as an expression of dramatic sensation, as Shibayama patiently draws out the lines “The true sun floating in the sky / The smell of grass”, as if in the real time of the passing day. Sparkling guitars and a shimmering Rhodes dance with these succulent images, alternating with soft verses, before closing with a bacchanal of sounds and thoughts.
Although Dream Sounds literally covers highlights from Nagisa Ni Te’s relatively brief career, the EP is perhaps better characterized as a mid-career summary of the group’s ideas and impressions. By revisiting compositions that highlight aspects of the band’s perspective and placing them alongside each other as a connected body, the record ably illustrates the core of the duo’s work. Sounds and approaches vary subtly, but are unified in a loving embrace. Dream Sounds’ spontaneous feel makes it clear that the record was not meant to reinvent the group’s wheel, but perhaps will function as a chapter closer in Nagisa Ni Te’s career. Near the end of “Sun”, Shibayama sings of wanting to hear the words in his dreams; let’s see where they lead him and Takeda next.