Shugo Tokumaru transcends the indie rock realm with Japanese-rooted pop


Many a Japanese band or musician has crossed over to Western audiences by banking on traditionally western sensibilities (be it as digestible as standard jazz to something  as avant-garde as experimental noise). Shugo Tokumaru is not one of these. From the opening track on Port Entropy, Tokumaru establishes his music as rooted in a traditional Japanese aesthetic. The aptly titled “Platform” is just a 44-second instrumental prelude to the album that does much to set the foundation of the album ahead. It fades in with Tokumaru plucking at what sounds like a Koto, but the song is soon overtaken by piano, bells, guitar, mixed with other clearly eastern-sounding string instruments as electronic-sounding flutes tumble together on a short pleasant melody. According to the liner notes, Tokumaru plays all the instruments on the album, save for some drums on one solitary song (“Rum Hee”).

Though a distinct Japanese pop sensibility shines throughout Port Entropy, Tokumaru still leaves lots of room for western influences. Soon after “Platform” the album rolls along on mostly, dense orchestral pop moments like “Tracking Elevator” and “Lahaha,” which feature a fat sound, padded with wood block rhythms, glockenspiels and light, springing acoustic guitars. I might have even heard some banjo in the mix. It reminds me a bit of the pastoral yet complex poppy music of the California-based Beaulah, who were rooted in the Pet Sounds-era Beach Boys and latter period Beatles. You can hear “Lahaha” in its entirety via Tokumaru’s video for the song here:

“Rum Hee” is rhythmic bliss that recalls the perky side of Sigur Ros with its rolling tribal beat (no wonder he had some extra help by Itoken). Like Sigur Ros, the English-only crowd who will take the plunge into this lush US-version of the album (due Feb. 15) will do so with little to no interest for the lyrics, beyond the tone and vocal qualities Tokumaru brings, as he sings in Japanese, save for a few scattered words here and there. It’s all about the impression of the music, and the heavy rhythms coupled with dynamic melodies certainly feels expressive beyond language. The record even includes a lyric sheet in Japanese:

There are quiet moments, too. “Linne” opens with a melancholy piano melody and some notes softly blown on a wind instrument (possibly a muted trumpet), but the song is mostly Tokumaru playing the pleasant piano melody that wafts along below his sincere, hushed singing. During one phrase, the distant sounds of what sound like kids on the playground joins the music with birds chirping in the background and all. Later in the track, Tokumaru brings in the sing-song hum of a bowed saw. It’s a delicate moment on what is a mostly hectic, but fun and perky album that also features accordion, marimba and even toy piano.

Despite the many pop moments, the album becomes most interesting during its finale. The incredibly moody “Orange” opens on a delicate toy piano melody that recalls the cutesy yet orchestral work of Joe Hisaishi for so many Hayao Miyazaki anime pictures. A honking accordion rolls along as a hammered dulcimer and bowed saw vibrate in harmony to soaring heights. The song moves toward its end with a minute of spacey noise and vibrations as distant whistles (or are they screams?) rumble out of the ether, closing with the distant blasts of a carnival-like organ. Tokumaru offers a nice compliment to the oddest track on the album with the album’s finale, “Malerina.” It opens with Tokumaru singing from what sounds like a little speaker, accompanied by ukulele with other plucky instruments as backing vocals coo along.

Port Entropy is a vibrant, colorful album filled with dynamic shifts that wears its pop sensibilities proudly while not betraying its roots to a distinctly Japanese background. It is no surprise Tokumaru has achieved great success in Japan. The language barrier will prove that will never happen in the states, as impressionistic music can never find a happy home on the pop charts in this day and age. Nonetheless,  Tokumaru has garnered much respect having already opened for the Magnetic Fields and corralled members of the National and Beirut as his backing band for his own US shows (see Polyvinyl’s description, and stay tuned for an up-coming North American tour).

Officially first released early in 2010 in Japan to much acclaim and a major entry on that country’s pop charts for an indie artist, Port Entropy was later released on a German label that same year. It is only now that the album officially hits the States thanks to Polyvinyl Records (as I said, Feb. 15 is the official US street date).

The album seems to be a limited run. Polyvinyl only produced 1,000 on 180 gram green marbled vinyl and 2,000 on CD, and as you can see in the Amazon page above, the title plainly states “Limited Edition.” The generous indie label, shared a copy of the vinyl record with me, so I shall close with a close up look of the green marbled slab of wax (click on the image for a magnified view):

(Copyright 2011 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)



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