1.0 Nobukazu Takemura is a Japanese electronic musician who sometimes goes by the name Child’s View and (less often) the name Assembler. He is also known as Spiritual Vibes and was a founding member of fake hip-hop crew Audio Sports.
1.1 Under these names, he has been releasing records in Japan and here in the U.S. for almost two decades. He has become a hero of and collaborator with the whole post-rock Chicago crew (Tortoise, etc.), but he has always walked his own path.
1.2 Three of his records are being released this spring by two different labels. I’m taking them one at a time because they are all very different. So this is the review of Songbook, a 19-track, 74-minute pop album that functions both as a Stereolab tribute record and a fun weird IDM record.
1.3 Oh, and some tracks sound like big band jazz and others bring classical serialism and the 12-tone system into a silly J-pop context and still others might be some kind of bastard hybrid between the Carpenters and OOIOO and anime soundtracks.
1.4 Oh, and it all somehow hangs together and it’s one of my favorite records of the year.
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2.0 First, the Stereolab thing. Yes, many tracks here either directly ape the sound pioneered by that band, or take their whole 1960s-avant-electronica-meets-Burt-Bacharach aesthetic.
2.1 I’m not saying this in any kind of “I worship Gane and Sadier and all their works and Mary Hansen was too perfect to live in this world” frame of mind. I like the ‘Lab just fine but I’m not a total groopie or anything about it. But yeah, Dots and Loops and Cobra and Phases Group. . . . are two pretty great records.
2.2 Takemura obviously agrees. “Mahou No Hiroba” could very well be an outtake from either one of those records, because all the signifiers are there: free-floating orchestral melody, deadpan heavily-accented female vocals (here, of course, longtime Takemura collaborator/lyricist Aki Tsuyuko takes the Laetitia/Mary role), strange lovely layered arrangements with trumpets and vibraphones high up in the mix, etc. Not exactly sure what this one’s about, exactly—I kind of make out the phrase “To reach for the moon / To reach for the sky”, but I’m not exactly sure if I’m right on this, and maybe it’s just Japanese that kind of sounds like that—but when the main melody and rhythm section all drop out at the 6:46 mark and only the ghostly backing horns remain, it just doesn’t matter, because it’s really very beautiful as it takes almost three minutes to fade into the ether.
2.3 In fact, if a couple of these tracks had appeared on Sound Dust, the reviews of that record might have declared that it was the ‘Lab’s best record in years. “Turutiksbinbon (Fr ver)” is a slow-building suite that adds a couple of new elements: jamming acoustico-guitarro-continuo, mellotron fills, big fat funky drumming by the end of its almost nine minutes. And “Obaoba” is a sexy waltz where Aki out-sultries even Laetitia Casta, not to mention Mme Sadier, which then turns into an electrorondo.
2.4 In general, I’m not that huge a proponent of trying to copy another group’s whole steez, but here, when it’s done, it’s done so well that it’s hard to hate. Unless you hate Stereolab, in which case you’d better stay far away.
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3.0 But it’s not all ‘Lab-fetishism, either. The aforementioned IDM serialism pops up on several tracks here, and it sounds like the Pop Revenge of Arnold Schoenberg. “Palabra of the Inky Black Manteau” uses repetition of its opening chanted syllables in a faux-oboe line, and then echoed by other instruments in little random bursts and chopped-up echoes and some free-jazz noise bursts that fade into silence and then are reborn into piano lines and then come back around to their original essence. Very strange, very “experimental,” but never less than pretty.
3.1 “Bell Buoy” is one of my favorite tracks here, because it sounds like a slow-jam Mingus or Monk tune, with long brass lines and slow-perk drumshuffle and Aki doing her Astrud Gilberto impression-even when it gets weirded-out at the end, it’s still just big-band jazz composition, and the organic sound is shockingly lovely. The same formula is employed a few tracks later on “Uruu,” where it’s all whispery vocals and electric piano and brushed snare drums.
3.2 Even weirder stuff lurks around the corners of every other track. “Strings from the Moon” could very easily be Buffalo Daughter or OOIOO on a bender; “Kamisibai” is a downtempo lullabye for music box vibes; “Curious World” is pretty clearly the kind of thing that experimental musicians listen to when the lights are down low and that special someone is around.
3.3 Takemura, you see, has always been a solo dude, or at most a one- or two-collaborator type. Here, he’s got up to 16 musicians all working under his strict baton (actually, he probably conducts with his vibe mallets), and he’s just having fun like a madman. Although some of these songs have only their own internal rules to play by, nothing here is less than charming or anything other than sweet transmissions from the planet Weirdo. You know how Tortoise has been accused of being no fun ever since their first record hit the stores? Well, no wonder they idolize Takemura: he makes this stuff sound not just fun, but immense huge wonderful jolly roll-on-the-floor side-splitting fun.
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4.0 So how the hell does it all mesh together? I have no idea. But it does, against all odds.
4.1 I guess it’s just because the same intelligence and delicacy of composition is invested in every track, from the little trifley snippets like “Tadpole in the Puddle” and “Tulala” to the mid-size poppy things like the haunting closer “Evening” to the longer Stereolabby stuff that has already been discussed. It’s all Takemura, and it’s all of a piece, and if it gets a little exhausting by the time an hour has gone by, then turn it off and go take a little walk and come back and listen to the rest later.
4.2 At least that’s my advice, because this is a great record that I love very very much.