Japanese Shoegaze bands and cultural reappropriation
I’ve always been fascinated by acculturation, cultural appropriation, and reappropriation. It’s a contentious issue in rock n’ roll, whether it’s Paul Simon “discovering” South African township music, or Taylor Swift “rapping” in the antiseptic-Gap-commercial “hip hop” video for “Shake it Off.” I’m sure that the phenomenon goes back to the inception of song itself, and it has been present in rock and roll at least as far back as Elvis Presley. It’s done poorly and disrespectfully all the time. Ink and blood are spilled over the matter.
But there’s also something in it that speaks to the capacity of music to empower and influence across cultural barriers. The extraordinary thing about culture is that while its trappings, behaviors, and practices can be “stolen,” the culture itself is ultimately not diminished. There’s nothing quite like the frisson of discovery one experiences upon finding there’s a vibrant Taiwanese rockabilly scene, or the thrill in excavating the varieties of Filipino rap. While some might regard these as mere cultural curios, I find it astonishing that people around the world love similar music and make it their own. More astonishing still, is how fucking good so much of it is.
Speaking of reappropriation, shoegaze (something we here at Overblown have been a bit obsessed with of late), got its name by embracing the very terms critics used to disparage the genre. Initially mocked because the musicians performed standing still in a detached, introspective manner, the genre-forming bands took the term and ran with it, eventually achieving their deserved critical acclaim. In their defense, they weren’t just standing about, they were looking at their effects pedals. Shoegaze was also called “The Scene That Celebrates Itself,” a contemptuous dismissal of the fact that the assorted bands were all friends with one another, as though rivalry were a prerequisite for rock authenticity.
For reasons worthy of investigation in a graduate thesis, My Bloody Valentine was preposterously influential in Japan. Two years ago, a bunch of bands from the land of the rising sun put together a tribute album called Yellow Loveless, covering the seminal 1991 album. Stumbling upon this fact has led me to explore some of these groups, and I’ve been thoroughly impressed. And so, in the spirit of that cross-cultural influence and collaboration, I’ve decided to compile a list of ten Japanese shoegaze bands I’ve recently been putting on repeat. Enjoy.
Formed in 2001, this Osaka band has released two lovely albums: a self-titled LP and the mini-album Sakura River. Track “P-NUT BUTTER irony” is typical of the style: amorphous distortion that drowns out vocals so indeterminate you can’t even tell they’re in a language you don’t speak. These guys are a delightful mélange of fuzz, dream pop, psychedelia, with subtle icing of sugary pop. Even better, you can listen and download here for free.
Yup, there are three Rs in their name. This trio of Tokyo savants came together in 2005, and have only released one album I could find, Blaze Down His Way Like the Space Show. Lush female vocals in nearly perceptible English make themselves barely known through the wall of sound. I recommend both “Coming Place” and “Song Without Words.”
A bit more influenced by noisy 90s pop than their comrades, Niz formed after seeing MBV perform. Supposedly, they didn’t even know how to hold guitar picks at the time. They’ve come quite a way since then, and their 2009 release Stone is a delight. Check out “Lapis Lazuli” and “Tiger’s Eye.” I’m pretty sure that all their songs aren’t inspired by semiprecious rocks, but the title of every track on that EP references one for some inexplicable reason.
With a name that evokes both Ride and Slowdive, Dive makes dreamy tunes that melt in your mouth like a buttery caramel. Their Freeze Frame EP and White Shore, White Sky albums are excellent jumping off points.
Possibly the elder statesmen of Japanese shoegaze, Sugar Plant formed way back in 1993. They’ve toured with The Magnetic Fields, Helium, and Yo La Tengo. I recommend the heart-shattering “Impure” or the Stereolabby lullaby “Happy.”
Another stalwart of the Osaka scene, Boyfriend’s Dead are simultaneously noisy and melodic. Comprised of four members, each with a weird pseudonym like “Bobbie Gillespie Hairstyle,” which should give you some understanding of their musical inspirations. Coed vocals undergird fuzzy anthems like the 8-minute monstrosity “4 am,” which sounds like the atrocious lucidity of insomnia itself. Check out “Melting Ice Cream,” with its smidgen of jangle. The vocals are a bit overly present, but it’s a charming tune that’ll prompt you to reminisce about a bygone summer nonetheless.
These relative newcomers from Tokyo released the Urban Twilight EP in 2007, and recorded a track for the Asian shoegaze compilation Half Dreaming a year later. They released the Myrtle EP just last year. They cross boundaries somewhat, moving into the somewhat twee realm, comparable to The Pains of Being Pure at Heart, while still retaining clear references to the Kevin Shields-fronted Irish shoegaze greats.
Originally conceived as an all-girl four piece, Yokohama’s Luminous Orange evolved into arguably Japan’s most successful shoegaze band. They’re probably too wide-ranging to be pigeonholed in the genre, having produced eight albums of dreamy experimentation. Check out “Walkblind.”
Active only between 2000 and 2005, Hartfield are the mystery men of the Tokyo shoegaze scene. They released two albums, True Color True Lie and LIBRA, before vanishing from the scene. They’ve proven difficult to dig up information about, but their tracks are lovely, and they cover MBV’s “Soon” in incomparable style. Listen to “Reason” for a representative sample of their sound.
Ok, so I’m cheating a little on this one, since they’re technically an American band with a Japanese singer and a Japanese name. Heavily textured and dreamy, Asobi Seksu (which translates as “playful sex”) ranks among my favorites in this subgenre. Every time I listen to their self-titled first album, I enthusiastically anticipate the second song “Sooner,” with its tremendous wall of sound guitar blast about fifteen seconds into the track. Listen and love.
So that’s my crash course in Japanese shoegaze, and I’m sure it’s woefully incomplete. Got a favorite I’ve neglected? Let us know in the comments below, or shoot me a tweet and mock my deep and abiding ignorance of the genre.