Artists From Japan #2: An Introduction To Number Girl

number girl

Who are Number Girl?

Despite their very isolated position on an island in the Pacific, and releasing albums for a very brief five years, Number Girl has grown to become one of the most beloved post-hardcore bands of all time. In many hardcore communities across the world, their name is said in bated breath. Shutoku Mukai, the lead singer, and songwriter, took his obsession with Pixies and Husker Du (whom he often mentions by name in his songs), and combined those harder alt-rock, and hardcore sounds with the kind of nostalgic post-hardcore that bands like Sunny Day Real Estate were birthing in the early 90s.

Number Girl flipped those somber, melancholic emotional palettes into blistering performances, melodic hardcore punk riffs, and a tendency towards noise and experimentation, all while becoming one of the most popular and catchy indie rock bands in Japan. The four piece consisting of Shutoku Mukai (Guitar, Vocals), Hisako Tabuchi (Guitarist), Kentarō Nakao (Bassist), and Ahito Inazawa (Drums) gave one of the best four album runs in Japanese music history and already appears on Rolling Stone Japan’s Best 100 Albums of All Time despite their entry only coming out in 1999.

In the west they have been given very positive reviews from Pitchfork, Sputnik Music, and Allmusic, as well as collaborated with influential producers like Dave Fridmann.

Here reside the translated lyrics for almost every Number Girl song (along with cultural explanations).

1. School Girl Bye Bye (1997)

Number Girl’s debut album set out the their intentions in bright bold letters for everyone to see. The guitars are chaotic, jumping between catchy, nostalgic Pavement-esque melodies to atonal solos at the drop of a hat. The drums sound like they’re getting the ever loving shit smacked out of them, and sometimes, like on ‘September Girlfriend’ they straight up clip because they are so powerful, and so heavily treated with distortion.

The constant blurring of post-hardcore, indie rock, and noise that made Number Girl famous is already there, and better yet, it’s already immensely satisfying. The opener ‘Omoide In My Head’, one of their biggest hits, and the song they would finish their last performance with, is a noisy explosion of pop with a deceptively catchy hook surrounded by arguably one of their best melodic guitar leads.

Already Shutoku’s voice had the components that made him one of post-hardcore’s most distinctive vocalists, that overflowing emotional charge, with a distinct, growly edge. Often he throws composure to the wayside for passionate delivery that descends into the occasional yell and yip. Sometimes he’ll even let himself fall off the beat or rush ahead, as if the words are painful to get out, or as if they are flowing out of him. The songwriting is strong, with tons of interlocking sections, and musical journeys that bridge smoothly into one another.

The lyrics dived deeply into melancholic nostalgia, a lyrical theme Number Girl were very prone to mining. [Translated] “So I open my eyes again, to myself sinking into that sentimental whirlpool / to myself obsessed with that illusion / Thrust it away and toss it aside somewhere / In my head / Yeah, in my head / Memories in my head / It’s in my head.” Together it’s an impressive debut, if maybe a little inconsistent, a quality that Number Girl would grow beyond in their major label debut.

2. School Girl Distortional Addict (1999)

If School Girl Bye Bye was accidentally catchy, then School Girl Distortional Addict is accidentally noisy. Their major label debut for Parlophone has some of the most memorable guitar riffs, and catchy choruses in all of post hardcore. Ok, maybe Dismemberment Plan is catchier, but they certainly don’t rock on all cylinders like Number Girl does.

Half of these songs feel like they’re seconds from falling apart. The guitar might be lagging behind the band in some crazy, distorted to hell solo, just to swing back into place at the last second to head into a bombastic chorus, or the drums might be blazing ahead with these unbelievably massive fills before magically snapping back into place with milliseconds to spare.

The opener ‘Touch’ has less overly dissonant guitar leads, or experimental tangents than something like ‘Omoide in my Head’, allowing it to unfold more like a conventional Pixies-esque alt rocker, with an anthemic chorus, and head bob worthy instrumentation. The next few songs, ‘Pixie Du’ (a reference to Pixies and Husker Du), and ‘Barefoot Season’ follow along these same guidelines, with equally fantastic, ear wormy results.

Then you get ‘Young Girl Seventeen Sexually Knowing’ (some delightfully bad English there), which features some very interesting abstract, nostalgia centric lyrics from Shutoku, whose vocal performance descends into shouting in this very powerful, forceful register, giving the song a real sense of emotional emergency. The whole set is working perfectly in sync here, winding tighter and tighter to an Unwound-type finale that adds together to become one of the best rock songs ever made, and for six more tracks they just keep proving their ability to make explosive songs that capture post-adolescent rumination.

The vast majority of Number Girl fans think this is their best album, and it’s hard to disagree. SGDA is an incredibly consistent album that succeeds from both an artistic and popular standpoint. The songs are catchy and could easily appeal to someone with zero interest in post hardcore, but even the most militant fan of the genre will succumb to the incredibly, bombastic performances of everyone in the band. But personally, I find myself gravitating towards their next album more.

3. Sappukei (2000)

The first track of Sappukei is called ‘Brutal Number Girl’, and in a way that’s all you really need to know about the album. Just take these lyrics from ‘Zegen Vs. Undercover’: [Translated] “The pimp makes secret maneuvers behind the city’s colors / The undercover cop who was taken in by the whore / was found murdered in the city of Rojiura / I know. I know the bystanders /I see. I see the tasteless truth.”

Or these lyrics from ‘Sasu-You’: [Translated] “Stabbed while entering / It’s muddy. There’s laughing / A random killer, a way to test his sword / Stabbed while entering / Thickness plunges in. Overwhelming / A random killer, a way to test his sword.”

Sappukei is restless and filled to the brim with despair. The drum hits are even harder, the anthemic/nostalgic guitar leads are now morose and brittle. The lyrics, as you’ve seen, have traded the nostalgia and melancholy of post-adolescence for the crushing sense of meaningless and despair that follows. Shutoku’s vocals has become cynical, mocking, and contains just the smallest tinge of sadness to remind you that he’s at least still human, and that all this despair is getting to him. The songs, and sounds are focused and looming, drowning everything in a dark haze, where brutality is the only constant, but really, it’s a beautiful album, with some of their strongest playing yet, and has a personal favorite. If you’re a fan of brutal, catchy post hardcore like Unwound or Shellac, this would definitely be my recommended starting point.

Lyrics from ‘Urban Guitar Sayonara’: [Translated] “I wonder if I’ll soon / finish disappearing.”

4. Num-Heavymetallic (2002)

It’s difficult to find specifics on the breakup of Number Girl, I don’t know if they knew it was coming when they recorded Num-Heavymetallic (i.e. Abbey Road), but what is obviously apparent, is that this album is the sound of a band who wanted nothing left unsaid. It’s by far their most experimental album, and features some just, incredibly baffling music. The opening title track is a Frankenstein-esque fusion of reggae, rap, post hardcore, and traditional Buddhist music (Shutoku is a devout Buddhist and many of his lyrics across all four albums mention that). It’s truly bewildering, with lyrics like: [Translated] “Young boys and girls leak piss / Why not fuck each other recklessly?”

But it’s also pretty engaging, soaking everything in a coat of reverb, and featuring an almost minimalistic mix (something Number Girl aren’t exactly known for). The next three tracks feature slightly more formless version of songs that could have fit on School Girl Distortional Addict. The distinct difference being that Shotoku’s voice here has lost any sense of positivity, and yearning, instead succumbing to bitterness and frustration. Something which is even more apparent when you read the lyrics, which focus in on his distaste for the people he sees in Tokyo, the worriless teenagers, and their gratuitous displays of public affection, what he perceived as succumbing to lust.

But, immediately after, Num-heavymetallic proves it’s eclectic nature with ‘Delayed Brain’, a complete 180 turn for Number Girl, displaying a completely restrained slow burner without almost no distortion, and a prominent organ lead, yes, organ! It even features some Cornelius-esque panning that lend an aura of a meticulously crafted pop, something Number Girl wasn’t exactly known for. It’s perhaps the least enjoyable of Number Girl’s albums, but it’s still an interesting look at the limitless possibilities the band saw in front of them before they split up. Maybe it’s best to leave it like this, looking at fruitful creative future, and leaving it to each band member to find their own way of expressing it.

Final Lyrics of the Album: “A girl with black eyes was glancing around nervously, searching for something… / A dog sang to me, I sensed laughter / I decide I never want to drink sake again / and go back home, go back home.”

5. The Breakup/The Aftermath

Here in the west it might be hard to look at Number Girl and understand why they became what Japan Times described as “cult group Number Girl”, or what drove an entire audience to fall over themselves crying at the final performance of ‘Omoide In My Head’. But after one listen I find that most people will independently reach the conclusion that Number Girl were something special, something that tapped into those powerful post-adolescent emotions of feeling lost, and of being trapped in nostalgic idealization of their teenage years. Much like American Football, or Dismemberment Plan, people created powerful emotional attachment to Number Girl, because Number Girl was making music that perfectly described who they were at the time. Unfortunately it didn’t last, and Number Girl would break up the year of Num-Heavymetallic’s release after the resignation of bassist Kentarō.

Shotoku, most notably, would go on to form a very popular math rock band called Zazen Boys, named after the English neo-psych band Soft Boys. He would also release music under a few different names, but the bulk of his meaningful post-NG output can be found in Zazen Boys. The rest of the group would work their way through Japan’s experimental rock scene, joining upwards of five bands each.

The label would continue to release B-sides, compilations, and live performances to suck money out of collectors and fans, but unfortunately, the band hasn’t released a song since their disbandment in 2002. Luckily fans who missed their quite legendary live performances can revisit the incredible Rocktransformed, which Rolling Stone Japan named the 92nd best album of all time, and the equally fantastic Sapporo Omoide in my Head Jotai, which chronicled their final performance.

If you like this ‘Artists From Japan’ article, we wager you’ll enjoy the first feature in the series about Cornelius.

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