This is an album for people who like pop's chirpiness but distrust its obviousness.
Tujiko Noriko was born in Osaka in 1976. She began singing at an early age but didn't start to release music professionally until she was in her twenties. Her first album, Keshou To Heitai, came out in 2000, after which she was befriended by Peter Rehberg, an experimental electronic musician and founder of the Austrian label MEGO. MEGO released her next album, Shojo Toji, and some of the albums that came afterwards: Hard Ni Sasete, and a 12-inch called I Forgot the Title.
A lot of her recent work has been collaborative, which brings us to the title of Solo. This album, she says, came about after she decided to compose songs on her own again. "Then I happily sing, dance, doing a mini-party alone." Her voice is the only human noise on the disc. Everything else is a recording or an electronic effect. Experimental electronic pop is her forté. She sings calmly, with repressed pleasure, only changing her tone for "No Error in My Memory". On that track she speeds up and seems agitated, as if the memory in the title is remembering things that she would rather forget.
More than one reviewer has compared her to Björk, but the ways the two singers use their voices as instruments within a piece of music are quite different. Björk's voice jumps into a song with its teeth bared. It takes the lead. Aggressively, it gives the piece an emotional direction. When it whispers then the mood of the music whispers along with it. It trembles and the song trembles. The Noriko of Solo is not a trembler. Her voice is the least overtly emotional part of the music. It's the sweet murmur that anchors a flurry of electronic squeaks. It's a toffee-soft bedrock and the effects are spikes and flowers running through it and growing over it.
Without her voice Solo would sound avant-garde and spur-of-the-moment, as if a group of people were standing around pressing buttons, tweeting and blurting at will. With it, you have dreamlike songs. Not dreamy, because dreamy suggests softness and Noriko's music is too spirited for that. I mean dreamlike and unexpected. The voice is the dreamer and the tweets and blurts are the incidents that swell up and subside in dreams: the strangers that appear and vanish, the fire station that you walk into only to discover that it has turned into a restaurant, the dog that transforms itself into a cow, the enemies that run over a hill and magically evaporate.
The effect is lighthearted and disconcerting. This is an album for people who like pop's chirpiness but distrust its obviousness. Noriko never introduces a straightforward melody without undoing it. "Ending Kiss" begins with a sweet phrase which doesn't last for more than a few seconds before the tone veers slightly off-kilter, it grows tart instead of sweet, and the melody is fogged with staticky blurs of noise. "At a Chinese Restaurant" starts sweetly too, and then it cracks. There are zooms and tinkles. In the middle of "Gift" appears a grunt that sounds almost like an accidental belch. It pops out of nowhere, quacks once, then disappears.
"Sun" is one of the most thickly layered songs on the album. It suggests sunshine in more than one mood, both as a shimmering warmth and as shots of light coming through a cloud. The song starts with insects creaking, then it segues into whistles, chirps, bird peeps and whoops, low booms, and Noriko's voice singing in the background, smooth-paced among the sound effects. I heard cats and thought of Juana Molina's Son, last year, with its mewing kittens. The Japanese cats aren't happy, though. They rowl and moan angrily, where Molina's kittens were plaintive.
Noriko's voice clouds over, the chirps and insects and cats are superseded by a hollow aural smog: the sounds cluster in on another intensely. A keyboard arrives and clears away the smog. Sunbeams. A typewriter rustles, chik-tak-chik, and the song fades away. Everything has been bright and astonishing. The musician seems to throw out these noises to disarm us so that we can receive her surprise blurts like little stabs of ecstasy, like moments of gladness breaking into our brains. Her music sparkles upwards. It lifts its hands to the light. Keyboard hosannas rise here and there throughout the album.
In other places there are stretches of low-key meandering that can get dull. "See Your Face" spends a lot of time rolling down an avenue of wind and "Gift" hangs around in fog for too long. But these are the exception rather than the rule. They do, however, highlight another difference between Noriko and Björk: the Japanese musician doesn't have the Icelander's seemingly instinctive precision. From the beginning of every song Björk plants her finger exactly on what she wants. Noriko fiddles delicately around in her sack of cats and typewriters until -- surprise! -- there it is! -- she's found the music.
This fiddling makes her seem human. She's like us. She's sweet, thoughtful, slightly veiled and odd, standing back from these tweets and blurts and taking stock of them from her bedrock position. The withdrawn quality in her voice prevents Solo being a totally involving album -- get too enthusiastic and you might feel that you were taking the music more seriously than the composer -- but you can't deny its sly, shy charm.