What is the difference between a track and a song? To the average listener, nothing — the terms are often used interchangeably.
But for music freaks — DJs, producers, obsessive fans and critics — the distinction is somewhat clearer. A song is organized, structured and historical. The pattern of verse, chorus, verse has changed little since Stephen Foster penned “Oh Susanna” in the 19th century. Melodic hooks gives songs their ingratiating quality, as anyone who has found themselves humming the “Titanic” theme song in the shower can attest.
A track, on the other hand, is amorphous and lawless, built on loops rather than chord changes. Its structure is formed on the whims of its creator. Though a growing number of bands and producers are exploring the fuzzy boundaries, the basic categories still hold: Aphex Twin makes tracks; The Strokes write songs.
The question of which is which has lately preoccupied producer Tatsuki Masuko. As a member of techno/dub trio Dub Squad and jam trance group Rovo, he makes tracks. As a producer of pop bands like Kururi and Supercar, he records songs. In his latest project, ASLN, with wife Fumie, he is attempting to merge the two.
It’s a tall order and one that only a few artists have managed successfully.
But Masuko isn’t one of Tokyo’s most in-demand musicians and producers for nothing. Like Laurie Anderson’s first single “O Superman,” (initially released on vinyl 45 to punctuate her pop culture allegiance), ASLN’s eponymously titled new album is pop reconceived. It is accessible, memorable, even easy to listen to, but at the same time, the palette of sounds used and the sprawl of each song signal something adventurous and new.
“A number of people have commented that our music sounds like Bjork,” says Masuko during an interview at his record company’s office. “But we weren’t sure what to make of it because Fumie’s voice doesn’t really sound like Bjork’s and the way we record is different.”
“But I noticed one time that on her albums she credits every bit of a song,” says Fumie, “as if to recognize all the individuals that contributed.”
Though Fumie’s voice is front and center in ASLN, like Bjork, it is almost used as another instrument.
“Thinking back on [this album],” says Masuko, “I feel now that I wanted to create a totality of environment where each of the elements would coexist in a gentle relationship to each other, without one existing to support the other.”
This is in contrast to usual pop songs where the music is used as an accouterment to the voice and lyrics, or techno and house where a disembodied voice is just another element to emphasize the beat.
“I felt that if you are going to have a voice and you are going to have a song, you need to have an intimacy to it, not just atmospherics,” he says.
An organic, natural vibe is ASLN’s linchpin. “Centrifugal Force” and “A Piece of U” recall the lazy grooviness of Curtis Mayfield or, with their hints of African percussion, Fela Kuti. Fumie’s lyrics have the skewed domesticity of a Banana Yoshimoto novel, giving even the most experimental cuts the warm coziness of a telephone chat with your best friend. “Hallelujah’s” spare arrangement, for example, is offset by her paean to the joys of listening to the radio.
This distinctly human touch is a result of Masuko’s preference for using jamming as a basis for recording. Instead of presenting the band, which also includes Rovo and Dub Squad member Koji Naka nishi and Mono drummer Yasunori Takada, with finished compositions, all but one of the songs on the record were made from scratch in studio.
“We would record the sessions on MD, then find the parts we thought worked and edit them together,” says Masuko. “Then we would go back into the studio and play those parts, giving it more shape and deciding what to drop and what to expand.”
This kind of collaboration makes for a lengthy recording process. But speed has never been a hallmark of this band. ASLN was originally conceived 10 years ago after Fumie made some demo tapes in the couple’s home studio. But after squeezing in a couple of recording sessions among his many other projects, Masuko realized that his questions about songs were interfering.
“I hit a wall with song material,” he says. “I felt an uncertainty about how to create songs in a way that felt right to me. I just didn’t feel comfortable with the conventional shape: verse, chorus, bridge.”
After two years of pondering the problem while he worked with Dub Squad and Rovo, he decided that perhaps a song could be constructed somewhat differently.
Having tried his hand at reconfiguring the pop song doesn’t mean that Masuko is any closer to discovering exactly what a song is.
“A song . . . hmm,” he says looking thoughtful. “I haven’t come to any fixed conclusions, but as a result [of this project], I’ve been thinking about the power of the human voice and all instruments really.
“Why do we hit things to make sounds? Why do we make sounds at all? It’s become an exploration of the basic question of musical roots. Why do we make music?”
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