[10 January 2007]
I guess I’ve been thinking about this a bit, but lately it seems our appreciation of new music, the way we judge it and rank it, comes down to expectation: expectation vindicated and expectation foiled. It’s not always the case that the former results in a sense of disappointment—i.e. we know where this is going—as it can be a pleasure, like when Snow Patrol come through on the promise of climax on, say, “Run”. When certain expectations are set up musically or lyrically and then deliberately left unfulfilled, a song can reveal brilliance, or just weirdness. But the tension of what’s just around the bend, whether it be a slight expansion of texture or a whole new musical idea, is one of the joys of listening to music. It’s in the grey zone between these two extremes that Fujiya & Miyagi place themselves with a wicked grin and a keen knowledge of where they come from, musically. And because they’ve mastered this game of setting and fulfilling/denying expectation, the band frees themselves to explore new applications of old source material in a refreshing and lighthearted way.
You may have already heard, but the band’s not Japanese, nor are they a duo; they’re three British dudes from Brighton. Transparent Things isn’t technically their debut—they released a couple of long-players in 2003 on the smaller British label Massive Advance—but it’s certainly the first to receive mainstream attention. After a May 2006 release in the UK, Transparent Things is bound for the US early in 2007. And Jens Lekman-style, it’s not a true album, but a collection of three EPs, released in 2005, with a handful of new material added.
You get the feeling Fujiya & Miyagi would be appealing no matter what genre they chose to write in, but they’ve chosen what has been called “whisper-electro”, or what you could also call electro-twee. The press material name-checks Krautrock standards Can and Neu!, and there’s certainly an element of that sound to F&M, as well as Happy Mondays (not quite so obvious), and Talking Heads (a little). Most strongly, though, the electronic music-via-live-instrumentation trick is DFA-esque, albeit in a more relaxed, perhaps filtered-through-the-West-Coast kind of way. And the witty or blasé lyrics deliberately placed over churning electro should immediately trigger Hot Chip comparisons, though vocalist David Best’s minimized and covered vocals are certainly unique.
All this affect smacks of transient novelty, but F&M avoids this trap by deft self-effacement and lyrics with absurdly effective imagery. The opening track, “Ankle Injuries”, begins with a repeated recitation of the band’s name in a deliberately non-Japanese accent. In fact, later on in the disc they counter: “We were just pretending to be Japanese”—the way it’s pronounced, sounds like Ja-pon-ese (with that emphasis). That is, the knowledge of the band’s artifice is thrust right at the listener, no apologies. Throughout, Best has great fun with his lyrics, rolling his ‘r’s and injecting tongue-in-cheek squeals of “sock it to me”. A disc highlight: when he breaks into the old kids’ song (the ankle bone’s connected to the… shin bone, etc), and the song follows the anatomy all the way up, building to a chugging synth climax broken with crinkled spider-effects.
If the lyrics are all gleeful absurdity, Fujiya & Miyagi’s music is a reliable steady-state. It establishes its MOA early, with the easy, atmospheric guitars and synth washes of “Ankle Injuries” and frilled-up surf rock of “Collarbone”, and continues strong throughout much of the disc. Though it’s still very subtle, “In One Ear & Out the Other” has more of a disco-funk vibe, like a minimal interpretation of a Hot Chip song. And the fiercely whispered refrain, “She got me wrapped around her little finger” is irresistible. But in the purely instrumental sections of the record, as on “Cassettesingle” and “Conductor 71”, the music can be so level it fades a little into the background, and you could be forgiven for thinking you’re listening to a Postal Service album once or twice over the course of the album’s 40 or so minutes.
Still, a couple of tracks at the end of the album demonstrate there’s more to Fujiya & Miyagi than just a one-trick, whispering electro band of the minute. “Cylinders” swells to a miniature peak of soft synth pads as Best repeats, “I read your star sign before I read my own”, and the dislocation is perfectly communicated: Hot Chip can do melancholy, but they can’t be this personal—compare this track with “And I Was a Boy from School” and see what I mean. And the final, US-only track “Reeboks in Heaven” is a perfect, sweet, short send-off. Can you imagine a more fitting elegy to an old engineering professor than to ask if he wears Reeboks in Heaven?
So listen to Fujiya & Miyagi when you get a chance. It’s a little bit of a summer record, relaxed and unassuming, but for its patience and surprising originality, it rewards repeat listens. In both the group’s music and their off-beat lyrics, Fujiya & Miyagi treads the constant line between predictability and knowing manipulation. And though it doesn’t always work out, most of the time Transparent Things finds easy pleasure in the electronic interpretation of this urban life.