Japan is such a neat and beautiful country that it shouldn’t be surprising people there sometimes want to unbeautify things, take them apart, kick the idea of neatness around, shake up the world, annoy the neighbours — so the existence of Japanese noise music shouldn’t be a shock, nor should the steady stream of underground Japanese groups playing with the idea of stability in other ways — destroying it, tinkering with it, teasing it apart. Maher Shalal Hash Baz is one, Koenjihyakkei is another, and so is Yura Yura Teikoku in this album, Hollow Me/Beautiful.
On the surface, this is guitar pop. The group was founded by its lead guitarist and songwriter, Sakamoto Shintarou, two decades ago in Tokyo, and there are times when the guitar seems to be eating the songs. This is the album’s primary disorienting effect. There’s an intimation of it in the opening track, “Ohayo Mada Yaro”, when the guitar picks a melody and sticks to it, shuddering in a way that almost, but not quite, undermines the idea of steadiness in the repeated riff. This song, and a few of the others, are creamed up with the kind of buttery MOR solo sax that made so much mainstream ’80s pop sound as robust as noodles. I have a feeling the musicians are doing this on purpose, setting up the retro creaminess so that the modern unsteadiness has something to play against, but ’80s sax is still ’80s sax, even when it lets you wonder if it’s being played with straight-faced sarcasm.
Minutes later, in “Dekinai”, the reverberating stringed bounce-bounce takes on the strength of a mechanical drill. The song opens normally enough, but after a little this drill-effect becomes noisier and pushier until it’s impossible to pay attention to anything else. The drums are still playing — never mind. The group breaks it up about three minutes in with a minor flourish of other instruments, but really, the guitar is the song. The rest shift between song and ornamentation. By the time the musicians began doing the same thing in track three, I had the feeling the audience was being actually mocked with this repetition, this exaggeration of pop simplicity, as if the group was saying, “You like simple pop? You like a nice catchy simple melody to follow? Here it is. Here it is. Here it is. Would you like more? More? Here. Full yet? Full yet? More?” It’s a self-aware drama between you and them, jagged psyche-minimalist, a daring exaggeration.
The pop smoothness represented by the MOR sax is part of this, and this smoothness is never violated, not even during the more instrumentally democratic jangle of “In the Forest”. The cleanliness and the repetition is enough to make a listener uneasy, but it’s not uncomfortable in any other way. They’re not out to punish your ears, just to play on your nerves.