Southern All Stars “Budou” (Victor / Taishita)
Southern All Stars don’t need to try. Japan’s music media and industry decided the rock quartet was historically important long ago. A 2003 poll by retailer HMV named them the most influential Japanese group ever, and plenty of praise came before that declaration.
“Budou,” their 15th original album and first in 10 years, doesn’t have to feature anything special other than the All Stars themselves, the greying music consumers of Japan will take care of the rest. And, for the most part, “Budou” is a lackadaisical collection of mid-tempo pop numbers about relationships and ballads about unrequited love.
Given the standard-formula approach, it’s noticeable when the group perks up and tries something different. Advance single “Tokyo Victory” is mostly a chin-up skipper focused on a better tomorrow for Japan but, at various points, lead singer Keisuke Kuwata slathers his vocals in Auto-Tune, which makes for a delightfully weird wrinkle in an otherwise straightforward track. On the tango number “Tenjyousajiki no Kaijin,” he delivers a possible ode to avant-garde poet Shuji Terayama with wonderfully wobbly verses. It’s ultimately a novelty, but fun.
Then there are the political songs. Besides the musing on global anxiety heard in “Tokyo Victory,” the All Stars tackle the abductions of Japanese citizens by North Korea on the hard-edged “Missing Persons,” which takes the perspective of abductee Megumi Yokota’s frustrated father (“I’m becoming impatient with this diplomacy”). “Peace To Highlight” isn’t as interesting musically, but the lyrics, which detail the uneasy relationship between countries in East Asia, tower over the boring material that surrounds it — and over most other mainstream J-pop, too. (The song originally came out in 2013, but seems somehow more urgent in 2015.)
It’s moments like these that find Southern All Stars using their prestige as a way to push hot-button topics into their listeners’ ears. As riveting as these efforts are, however, they still only constitute a small percentage of “Budou.” For a group that can do no wrong, let’s hope on the next album they grab the chance to do more right on social issues.