Music / CD Reviews | LISTENING POST

LLLL, Envy, Taka Goto and Mr. Children albums among best of the year so far

by Daisuke Kikuchi

Staff Writer

With the arrival of Line Music this month, and the possible arrivals of Spotify and Apple Music on the horizon, Japan’s powerful CD industry could see some arguably necessary shakeups. Up until now, though, 2015 has been much the same in terms of sales.

Idol pop, boy bands and anime soundtracks have dominated the charts with help from the usual non-music-related gimmicks like tickets to handshake events, but June sales saw some bona fide musicians also do well: Superfly, Asian Kung-Fu Generation and Mr. Children.

According to chart service Oricon, Veteran pop-rock group Mr. Children sold 355,268 copies of “Reflection” in its first week. It came out in two formats, “Naked” and “Drip.” “Naked” is a ¥9,000 box set with a USB flash drive equipped with 23 songs, while “Drip” is a standard 14-track CD. The album is so far not on Line Music, though, which could foretell the obstacles facing music-streaming sites in Japan.

NHK called “Reflection” a “fresh new start,” but I thought it was standard Mr. Children fare — albeit something that fans are likely to go nuts over. Singer Kazutoshi Sakurai’s voice is way too established to sound “new” at this point. The album was more likely grabbing for a nostalgic payoff, a trend in a country where “best of” albums also do particularly well. A documentary called “Mr. Children Reflection” is in the works, and a ¥9,000 box set is a treat that only the most hard-core fans will appreciate.

A lot of the fresher-sounding albums of the year so far have been released on smaller labels. “Faithful,” the second full-length from Kazuto Okawa’s electronic project LLLL, features a hybrid form of J-pop and the foreign interpretation of the genre often heralded by collectives like PC Music. Okawa’s J-pop credibility comes from his role as a songwriter for singers such as Yuki (“Naminori 500 Mile,” “Fly”) and Kaela Kimura (“Coffee”), while his interest in netlabels has resulted in a productive relationship with U.S. producer Meishi Smile’s Zoom Lens label.

Okawa’s early EPs were released with tags like “new wave” and “chillwave,” and featured strong synths and beats that hinted at his intention to keep his distance from pop. But with “Faithful,” he embraces the J-pop sound, keeping within an atmosphere that is melancholic and dreamy but avoids becoming too ambient or shoegazer. This is thanks to careful arrangements that fill the space with the minimal amount of instruments, and song structures that don’t follow typical patterns. The drums and bass are relatively complex for pop songs, which makes the tracks sound like they’re being scored live. Okawa plays actual instruments (there’s an electric guitar on “Blue” that features a Johnny Marr-like touch), but they blend so well with the tracks that they don’t stick out, proving his chops as a composer.

In May, Shinko Music published a postrock mook that looked back on 20 years of the genre. Two of Japan’s titans in that world are Envy and Mono.

Envy’s sixth full-length, “Atheist’s Cornea,” plays like a compilation of the band’s two-decade history. Opening tracks “Blue Moonlight” and “Ignorant Rain at the End of the World” convey the band’s roots; emerging from the hardcore scene in a chorus of aggressive riffs played on distorted guitars. The closer, “Your Heart and My Hand,” is pure postrock defined by mellow melodies and poetry reading.

Mono didn’t release anything as a group, but member Takaakira “Taka” Goto released his first solo album, a collection of tracks he’d been hiding under the title “Classical Punk and Echoes Under the Beauty.” Originally recorded in 2003, Goto polished the album up with orchestration and atmospheric noise.

Goto, Envy and LLLL have put out solid releases and if you haven’t checked them out yet, don’t wait around for them on Line Music — get into a CD shop and show your support.

Tell us what albums you’ve enjoyed so far this year in the comments section below.