Okay, this one's new: singer Yukari Fujiu, an established J-pop star in the Japanese girl band The Groopies, buys a learn-to-speak-English book and tape, and when she listens along, she hears a monologue by ex-Beat and Fine Young Cannibals guitarist Andy Cox. Time passes, and the two meet by chance in London, Yukari startling Cox by quoting the monologue from the tape; but after finding out that the talented Japanese singer isn't a stalker, Cox immediately hits it off with her. After a weekend, they decide to start a band, and the pair commence writing songs via the internet, e-mailing each other unfinished song clips back and forth. They convene once again in London, and record a highly contagious pop record, for the astonishingly cheap sum of £300, which the group distributes through a home-spun internet record label. Only these days, could such a thing be possible.
Cribabi (pronounced "crybaby") is the band, and Volume is the album. Sounding modern, yet spanning various genres of pop music, Volume is one of those pop rock albums that sounds a bit adventurous, but still possesses a great deal of appeal to fans of more mainstream fare. At first listen, you immediately hear a heavy emphasis on the mixture of raw guitars with electronic accents, bearing a great similarity to albums by Garbage and the Sneaker Pimps, but delve deeper, and you start to hear such diverse influences as Bjork, Burt Bacharach, techno, bubblegum pop music, and even a tiny hint of jangly, Byrds-style guitars. The instrumentation, by Cox and co-producer Dave Anderson, expertly jumps from genre to genre on each track, yet still remaining loyal to the band's sound, each song sounding consistent with the other.
Cox stays in the background, letting Yukari shine in the spotlight, and from the sound of her pronunciation, that learn-to-speak-English tape worked quite well. On the buoyant, highly contagious songs "Somebody to Love" and "Map", Yukari's vocals carry the songs, sounding playful and edgy at the same time ("Map" especially encompasses all the best elements of Japanese pop). The ethereal, synth-heavy "You're So Sweet" sounds like Goldfrapp, while "Breakfast Show" combines languid guitar rock with Yukari's soulful vocals, much in the same vein as Sharleen Spiteri's best work with Scottish band Texas. Both "Gloria" and "I Can't Go for That" is upbeat, modern dance-pop, and the album shifts gears into slinky funk on "Cry".
The very catchy "Eternal" has those jangly guitars I mentioned, and in another producer's hands, it would have been transformed into some kind of overblown, Glenn Ballard-type ballad with layered guitars and vocals, backed by a hip-hop beat. But Cox and Anderson know what to do with a good tune, and the duo give "Eternal" a more subtle arrangement, letting Yukari do her thing, without drowning her out with production overkill. "I'm the One?" comes closest to sounding like Garbage, but Yukari is so charming and coquettish, in that girly Japanese way, that you hardly mind. On the pretty "Beautiful Mistake", Cribabi tries their hand at Burt Bacharach's style of songwriting, with Yukari channeling both Karen Carpenter and Dusty Springfield, and Cox adding little flourishes of synth melodies, using them like Bacharach used his distinctive trumpet lines. And Yukari takes another stab at Karen Carpenter's style on the cute, karaoke-style cover of The Carpenters' syrupy hit "Yesterday Once More".
Aside from the brief opening track "Everything is Nothing", which mimics Björk a bit too blatantly, Volume is a very solid debut album for the duo. Much like Sing-Sing, another duo featuring a former guitarist of a well-known band (Emma Anderson, formerly of Lush), Cribabi have opted for the space-pop route, but unlike Sing-Sing, they have more of a multi-layered sound, with more of a punch, thanks to Cox's excellent guitar work. But what holds your interest is the lovely Yukari, who does a very admirable job on her English language debut. This is the kind of pop music that you wish would achieve mainstream popularity, but it's also the kind of album you like to relish on your own, pushing the title to everyone you know. A great little hidden treasure, but one you wish would stay hidden no longer.