It’s hard not to like Sharon van Etten. The New Jersey-born singer-songwriter exudes a very natural, laidback kind of charm, both on stage and on record. It’s not everyone that could get away with closing a frequently heart-wrenching album like 2014’s Are We There with a song that featured a memorable line about the intimacy of taking a shit in one’s partner’s bathroom. That down-to-earth nature is at the heart of Remind Me Tomorrow, Van Etten’s fifth record and her first in nearly half a decade. Having recently become a mother, and with her days increasingly populated by a wide variety of other non-musical commitments (from studying to acting), Van Etten’s got a lot on her plate. It feels utterly fitting – and totally true to form – then that her new album is named after the button one clicks when putting off anything from software updates to to-do list memos on a Mac. I usually click it a minimum of ten times a day.
Remind Me Tomorrow is not a weary record, just one that calmly accepts the impossibility of doing everything, all the time. It’s noticeably less focused on heartbreak than previous works, tellingly opening with the line “Sitting at the bar I told you everything / You Said, ‘Holy Shit, You Almost Died’”, as if to warn listeners that they shouldn’t expect another album thematically dominated by lovelorn regret. The new, synth dominated sound that prevails throughout most of the album is equally powerful in this respect. Propulsive lead single ‘Comeback Kid’ is the sound of the fragile guitar-led arrangements that took centre stage in Van Etten’s early work being drowned out by a house party down the road.
Despite these changes there is still plenty of intimacy here. Remind Me Tomorrow grants access both to Van Etten’s joy at her newfound domestic bliss and to the new, more peaceful self-reflection that now provides the fulcrum of her songwriting approach. The soaring ‘Seventeen’, the record’s most immediate standout track, features Van Etten musing on adolescent uncertainty from the vantage point of stability. The droning ‘Jupiter 4’ contains an earnest, but heartfelt, declaration of what separates her situation today from that of her past: “Baby, baby, baby, I’ve been waiting, waiting, waiting my whole life for someone like you”. In another pleasing wink-and-nudge moment the track is named after the synthesizer, borrowed from actor Michael Cera, that has provided much of the album’s sonic character.
The sense is that Van Etten has been waiting not just for the “for real” love of her current relationship, but also for the opportunity to release an album this spacious. During its peaks – the glorious trip hop influenced pair of ‘Memorial Day’ and closer ‘Stay’ deserve mentions here – Remind Me Tomorrow gives the impression its creator has all the time in the world. To call the album ‘relaxed’ would be misleading (it’s still too lyrically direct for that), but it meanders along contentedly rather than throwing one heavy emotional punch after another. This does cause the odd problem. The trio of ‘Nobody’s Easy to Love’, ‘You Shadow’ and ‘Hands’ feel rather underdone and the jaunty ‘Malibu’ gets a little lost coming directly after the particularly compelling central duo of ‘Jupiter 4’ and ‘Seventeen’.
How far the record succeeds is probably down to whether individual listeners valued Van Etten’s previous records for their honesty or, not unreasonably, as reservoirs of emotional support. Remind Me Tomorrow isn’t as consistently captivating as Tramp or Are We There, but it’s nonetheless a delightful return, one that gives us a new (pleasingly less traumatic) window into Van Etten’s world.
I’ve always marvelled at the Japanese practice of Kintsugi. When pottery breaks, the shards aren’t thrown in the bin, but carefully reconstructed and glued together to honour the object’s mileage and trauma. This beautiful marriage of craftsmanship with deep philosophy is more tangible than the act of writing songs, but in its essence, it’s the same thing. Indie rock stalwarts Death Cab for Cutie even named an entire album after it, though one could argue its principles apply more to their Pacific Northwest peer Pedro the Lion.
Phoenix, David Bazan’s first album in over 15 years under the Pedro moniker, indeed, feels more like a reconstruction than a revival. In my yonder years, I’ve always had a strange relationship with Bazan’s music compared to the artists hailing from similar pastures. Death Cab appealed to my teen angst, Modest Mouse to my nihilism, Elliott Smith to my depression and sadness. Bazan’s former housemate Damien Jurado– who named his underrated masterpiece Ghost Of David after him – was still too erratic for me at the time.
The first Pedro the Lion song I ever heard, ‘The Longer I Lay Here’, struck me in this super intrusive way. It’s a barren lo-fi acoustic track that sounds as if conceived from a messy bedroom, the sunrise acting as intruder peering between the shades. The unprocessed sorrow in Bazan’s weary voice felt almost too real, too immediate. As a youthful, giddy soul, at the time, I ached for music that would crystalize my own pain more eloquently or crudely. Bazan sounded like a lost soul woefully at odds with himself, the solace of his guitar applied as last resort to kickstart something resembling enlightenment. His ambivalence made his music achingly human.
Retrospect can be a funny thing, though. In my thirties, I feel old enough to articulate why Pedro’s music didn’t click with me before. And, more importantly, why it suddenly does now. For one, I can remotely imagine why Bazan had to put the Pedro name to rest. Here is a guy who was insistent on putting his fingerprints on every instrument, every lyric, every vocal take. Making records was a soul search, a quest for a deeper understanding within himself and within his place in the world. Chiseling complex existential questions into clean, sapid refrains has never been Bazan’s forte. It’s reasonable that at some point, it would feel like self-immolation.
Even on Phoenix Bazan doesn’t exactly come out of the gates swinging with ‘I’m baaack!’ fortitude. Opening cut ‘Sunrise’ is a lulling, soothing paintbrush of synths, frayed by a faint static that doesn’t in any way feel intrusive. The restful lurch of ‘Circle K’ – similar to Ought’s ‘Passionate Turn’ – immediately evokes a tender sentiment. Bazan unravels a memory about failing to save up for a skateboard because he spent all of his allowances on candy and soda pop. It takes quite a lot of living to sermonize a dull trip to the convenience store, but Bazan’s husky, world-worn delivery immediately sucks you in. “I spent it all at Circle K //Dreaming that the light would never change” And aptly, there’s no soaring chorus to speak of, as the song spirals out exactly as it began.
That embittered sense of cross-examination is palpable throughout Phoenix, though Bazan doesn’t feel stuck in the ditches like on those introspective early Pedro recordings. For the most part, he sifts through his memory banks with matter-of-fact clarity, leaving it to the elemental power of the music and voice to evoke meaning. The dirgeful ‘Quietest Friend’ carries acknowledgment and acceptance of past digressions: not like a heavy cross, but like an illuminated beacon.
Sonically, out of all the Pedro album’s, Phoenix is by far the most arena-sized in its scope. Even though a lot of his meanderings are rooted in the past, Bazan is keen to hold a mirror up to the notion of unapologetically maudlin nostalgia. ‘All Seeing Eye’ has all the makings of a bona fide stadium rock-belter, but Bazan chooses to embellish his pleas with just a fragmented echo chamber of melodies that sound like samples from a band recording played on a keyboard. It’s a crafty sonic execution of the strange disconnect your feel revisiting your hometown after many years: a vague residue of home that fades amidst constant the rebuilding and mutating.
Which brings us to the place Phoenix occupies within the canon of Bazan’s Pedro the Lion catalog. For one, it shows an artist no longer caught in his own artistic web, but someone watching his past selves struggle from a higher vantage point. ‘Clean Up’ is the closest thing to a fist-pumping guitar anthem as Pedro the Lion has done, as even here, Bazan is only tentatively optimistic (“or even having some fun”). On ‘Powerful Taboo’ he expresses misgivings of ‘good vibrations’, seemingly fully aware of the ‘triumphant return’ narratives that gird most artists coming back from more than a decade of absence.
But even in his so-called ‘hiatus’, Bazan never stopped performing and releasing records. In this KEXP interview, he wryly states that all it took for people to start paying attention, was to perform again as Pedro The Lion. But, like his friend Damien Jurado, stirring restlessness and discomfort have always been both a gift and a curse. Jurado’s latest LP The Horizon Just Laughed reckons with his beliefs and touchstones within times of overwhelming change, and in many ways, Bazan accomplishes a similar awakening from limbo on Phoenix. Its centrepiece ‘Leaving The Valley’ serves almost as Bazan’s sister song to Jurado’s ‘The Great Washington State’, two question mark-protagonists eternally in doubt of the truths they are pursuing.
‘How do you stop a rolling stone / how will you know when you are home?’ Bazan asks himself. Though he may never get a satisfying answer to that jarring question, on Phoenix, he has at the very least picked up the pieces, retracing the origins of his scars.
As good as The Twilight Sad’s last record was, it occasionally felt like a concession. A singular path of progression by subtraction had resulted in the cavernous frostbite agony of 2012’s No One Can Ever Know, and the world flinched. Despite being at their artistic peak, there was no comfort in its contents, no warmth in its expression. Purposefully aligned with tombstones like The Holy Bible and Closer, if the lurking horror within was a true representation of its creators’ state of mind, we all should’ve said something.
Nobody Wants To Be Here And Nobody Wants To Leave crawled towards the light; the motorik creep replaced with a commitment to survival in the face of adversity. However, its deserved success was offset by a nagging feeling that something had been lost. For a band that built its reputation on ferocity (of both emotion and volume), there was a blanket over the sharp edges and a muted undercurrent to the whole collection.
The Twilight Sad // VTr (Official Video) - YouTube
It Won/T Be Like This All The Time arrives in the wake of dramatic change. Drummer Mark Devine departed at the start of 2018, leaving James Graham and Andy MacFarlane as the remaining original members. They ended their decade-plus relationship with Fat Cat Records and decanted to Mogwai’s Rock Action. The world lost Scott Hutchison, but The Twilight Sad lost their best friend. Watch the battered catharsis of ‘Keep Yourself Warm’ at Primavera and try to stay intact. Its vulnerability, pain and desperate celebration are so enduringly human that it’s impossible to look away.
The tone for this new LP is set immediately by ‘[10 Good Reasons For Modern Drugs]’ and a broken electronic warble panning from left to right. Graham’s voice arrives and then disappears, cut into fragments and offered up as texture for the instrumental. It’s fast, colourful and distinctly apart from the band’s back catalogue, but the aggression and vigour that faded with Nobody Wants To Be Here… has returned. Graham has grown immeasurably as both vocalist and frontman over the last few years – where he would once prowl the stage, curled like Nosferatu and forever at 90 degrees to the audience, he now stares them down, arms outstretched and sacrificial. When he howls “I see the cracks all start to show”, it’s as much statement of intent as acknowledgment of weakness.
Graham prefaced this album in interviews by expressing a desire to be less cryptic. His lyrics were always frantic sketches of moments, hinting at a nameless terror happening somewhere off the page but never approaching explanation. Facets of that remain here, but it’s clear where his focus lies: loss, fear of abandonment, the crutch of alcohol and, crucially, love. Questions surface incessantly, rooted in anxiety:
“Would you throw me out into the cold?”
“Is it too much to be kind?”
“Why did you leave in the night?
“Is it still me that you love?”
“Why can’t you remember me?”
“Why do you do this to yourself?”
The record’s ambiguous title holds the album together as a singular body of work; that no matter the impact or consequence, all moments are both worthy and fleeting. ‘VTr’s key lyric, “there’s no love too small”, is wholly representative of this outlook and an essential broadening of the palette.
While there are clusters of victory and hope scattered within, you definitely have to work for them. ‘I’m Not Here [missing face]’ tries in vain to hide its self-disgust, while even that declaration of love in ‘VTr’ is followed by “I won’t be surprised if it kills us all”. Most unsettling is ‘Girl Chewing Gum’, its stark threat of suicide riding the same industrial clank and churn as No One…’s ‘Dead City’. It’s a genuinely upsetting listen, made more uncomfortable by the shrug with which Graham delivers his lines and the way it sounds just so triumphant and satisfied by the end.
Musically, this is the most open The Twilight Sad have ever been. A discipline of Kevin Shields, MacFarlane’s guitar playing has now evolved like Spirited Away’s No Face to swallow every other instrument he encounters. At various points he apes keyboards, strings and synths, mimicking their output in twisted, feedback-drenched form. His playing is swirling and expressive throughout, but he also allows himself to break into clear, thick chords on ‘Shooting Dennis Hopper Shooting’ and gentle Disintegration arpeggios on ‘The Arbor’.
Newly-minted full members Brendan Smith and Johnny Docherty contributed to the writing process, adding new depth along the way. The decision to sparingly nibble at the vocal parts with digital manipulation feels vital, re-integrating singer and backdrop. ‘Keep It All To Myself’ finds them totally in sync, Graham sitting in the pocket of a big Novoselic bassline and rising with his bandmates as the music builds. Final track ‘Videograms’ pulls the opposite trick and thrives on tension without resolution, imperceptibly coiling itself around you with its beautiful Joy Division shiver.
This is a muscular collection, informed by Sad cheerleaders The Cure and Mogwai but also edging closer to Forget the Night Ahead and No One Can Ever Know; an avalanche of ideas and excitement built to carry multiple tours. The overriding sense is that this is how the band was always meant to sound. It’s a determined, seductive experience, brimming with belief and completely torching everything they’ve done before. As of now, The Twilight Sad are basically untouchable.
When’s the last time a band legitimately intimidated you? We’re ruling out anyone homophobic/racist/misogynist, because no one needs to seek out hate. No, I mean: before the unwritten dress codes of punk and hardcore bands calcified into the same branded leather jackets, the point of rock n’ roll was to flip off the status quo. With each passing generation, both the stiffs and the deviants seem to shift; lately, though, you can’t always figure out where the line between the two lies. Local punks make nests in their hometowns, skate by on universal tropes, and rub elbows with just their buds. Meanwhile, local multimedia pop stars form radical non-profit orgs and unify the community.
That said, even in this era of tossed-salad genres and pacified indie kids, rebels can still wield guitars as their weapon of choice. The lean & mean Skinny Girl Diet have been sharpening their blades since childhood; through a slew of venom-laced EPs, singles, and one LP, the garage-trained crew flipped off gender norms, rich kids, and dudes in general with equal whirlwind assaults. When we last saw SGD on debut Heavy Flow, they’d proven their grunge-heavy might as a trio, and flexed their muscles against the notion that pretty girls ought to write pretty love songs. Ideal Woman doesn’t back down on that stance - and even without the aid of their old bassist, Delilah and Ursula Holiday have somehow buffed up even more.
Of course, we already knew that SGD could dish out more than most amateur punks. But this time around, the duo flaunt even more of their hard rock swagger. Ursula finesses the kit like the legends, while Delilah can command her voice with more expression and scathing attitude than ever before. Tunes like ‘Witch of the Waste’ and the title track swing with undeniable Hendrix flair; closing salvo ‘Warrior Queens’ and ‘White Man’ lurch with the sluggish thunder of Black Sabbath, even as the sisters wave the freak flag high (especially on the latter jam, which we’ll explain in a bit).
The satisfying crunch of Ideal Woman might feel a bit dated at times, but the Holiday sisters offers all sorts of relevant beef to chew on. At the album’s core is the same stubborn resilience to what the patriarchy expects of femininity, as ‘Ideal Woman’ spells out the breadth of self-sacrifice that the protagonist endures to match the archetype: “I changed my hair / I changed my clothes / I changed my eyes / I changed my soul.” On the flip, “Warrior Queens” presents the proud opposite, especially as Delilah switches from suave and soulful to downright feral in a razor-flash.
However, the sisters have much more to lash out against than just misogyny. Smack dab in the middle of Ideal Woman, SGD lay bare the yawning gaps between the haves and the have-nots with a three-punch combo. More than a few underrepresented groups could pump their fists to the defiant chorus of ‘Western Civilization’: “How we gonna change the world / if we got no one?” Meanwhile, the grunge-tinted sneer of ‘Starfucker’ exposes the blind ambition that many a millennial could shake their fists at - all stars, no substantial living wage. And the 90-second hit-and-run ‘Outsider’ sums up the alienating aftershocks of gentrification in one explosive rush, as if the window for rebellion is about to collapse and SGD have only once chance to break through.
Still, the sisters reserve their biggest spitwads for the patriarch. In our era of cautious PC optimism, ‘White Man’ strikes like a knife to the jugular; Delilah oozes with snark as she sneers ”I wish I was a white man / maybe I would be on all your TV screens”. Other artists have found cleverer ways to point up how messed up this line of thinking is - but see, people expect women’s art to be clever, and SGD defy that by dealing blunt force trauma whenever possible.
That makes the Delilah and Ursula a fearsome duo to reckon with. Which means, the old rock n’ roll spirit still lives after all - it just needed to shift to new hands.
Smaller, regional venues and studios are the lifeblood of the music industry, and it's never been more important to support live music - in all its forms - and local promoters. Nottingham has a particularly vibrant scene, and Drowned In Sound is extremely proud to partner with Gigantic Tickets and Alchemistic Records for The Moonshine Sessions, a series of candid interviews and performances with artists currently on tour and passing through the city.
Gigantic are an independent ticket agency working with a huge range of artists, promoters, and venues selling tickets up and down the country. Partnering with Alchemistic, who themselves are a collective of musicians, producers, videographers, and photographers, has bought them closer together through a shared love of live music. The sessions are filmed at Nottingham’s state of the art Rofl studios.
For the third Moonshine Session we had the clattering bards of the underclass Sleaford Mods in the studio spitting their acerbic and biting social commentary. Alongside 'Stick In A Five And Go', the lead single from last year's self-titled EP, they played a typically fiery 'Bang Someone Out'. The band also sat down for a wide-ranging chat with our very own Dom Gourlay, which you can view alongside their performances below. Enjoy.
Sleaford Mods - Stick In A 5 And Go (Moonshine Session) - YouTube
Bang Someone Out
Sleaford Mods - Bang Someone Out (Moonshine Session) - YouTube
The Moonshine Sessions are a joint venture between the Nottingham based ticketing agency Gigantic and Alchemistic Records, a collective of musicians, producers, videographers and photographers whose shared love of music has bought them together.
Select artists have been invited to take part in The Moonshine Sessions working with the in-house team at Nottingham's Rofl studio to create high-quality audio and video content.
In an ornate hotel lobby just outside of downtown Amsterdam, Sharon Van Etten holds up her hands, which are no longer hidden beneath her sleeves. She compares the level of chipping on her nail polish with my own as if showing off old war scars. “It’s that whole ‘I’ve got shit to do, I don’t have time to maintain’ look,” she smirks, narrowing her almond-shaped eyes mischievously.
When in conversation, Van Etten’s wry wit tends to rub off on you. Over the past four years, she has unshackled herself from what I jokingly call ‘The Touring & Recording Cycle of Death’. As a result, her innate passion for myriad disciplines was able to materialize in fresh, unexpected ways. She wrote her first film scores and landed the role of Rachel in the Netflix drama series The OA. On top of that, she started studying psychology, in a bid to become a therapist by the age of fifty. “It has me asking more questions,” she tells me, sipping from her tea. “About, for instance, how important your past is. How important different perspectives are.”
One way to explore different perspectives is to try different art forms, and Van Etten is trying more than ever, on top of the responsibilities of motherhood no less. In a phase where society often tells you to ‘settle down’ and ‘stay in your lane’, the 37-year old New Jersey-native is fruitfully doing the opposite. “One of my babysitters out there is a writer and comedian, and early on she asked me to just perform a variety show she was putting on,” she enthuses.
“And since I’ve been working on my new songs, I felt like that would be kind of boring. I wanted to challenge myself differently. I don’t think standup is where I’ll hang my hat, but I enjoy the challenge of writing and drawing from personal experiences. Becoming a mom has been hilarious in many ways. Especially trying to find friends as a mom! It’s hard to make friends as an adult anyway, but as a mom with a family… that’s a whole different universe! How am I going to find a sitter? What’s the best playground? How do you trust a babysitter? You leave a complete stranger with your kid. When you think about it, all those things are pretty bizarre!”
Van Etten believes that trusting others more was crucial for her personal growth these past four and a half years. “It’s just the initial letting go that’s so scary. But that happened when I learned to co-write with people. When I learned how to let go of the songs I’ve written to other people, and the family relationship with my partner. For the first time, I let someone produce my record entirely. Even something as simple as finding the right babysitter, someone who can open up my son in a different way than I can. Those things are a constant in life.”
Sharon Van Etten - Seventeen - YouTube
As a recording artist who dealt with acclaim from critics and peers alike, Van Etten is no stranger to developing her craft and taking that leap of faith. But after each chapter, something elemental always permeates. Van Etten’s work wields the power to crystallize the most devastating mortal experiences with resplendency and celebration. One song that always stuck with me is Are We There-deep cut ‘Tarifa’. It was written in the most southern point of Spain during the final repose of a crumbling relationship, briefly untethered from a particularly heavy touring cycle. Nevertheless, its exotic setting plays a heart-wrenching part in a scenario of ‘not quite there’. Being able to peer towards new continental pastures from across the ocean, a sad, stirring realization simmers beneath: the desired destination is still too far to straddle.
For all that, Van Etten’s innate kindness remains etched in her words: the bliss of witnessing those majestic sunsets (‘I wish it was seven all night’), naively embraces the fallacy of it all. For good measure, ‘Tarifa’ adds an impassioned sax flourish that would be considered maudlin if not for Van Etten’s tendency to scatter candid – often quirky – revelations like a trail of breadcrumbs. As it turns out, Van Etten hasn’t kicked the habit of writing songs in exotic places. Her new album Remind Me Tomorrow has a song called ‘Malibu’, though sonically speaking, this one doesn’t exactly scream ‘exotic’ the way ‘Tarifa’ does. First of all, there is no beautiful destination at play. Van Etten instead opens with this:
“We held hands as we passed the truck / Just a couple of dudes who don’t give a fuck / Tap the brakes and we slow down / Just a couple of jokers on the edge of town”
Unless we’re talking Springsteen, the tale of two runaways astray in some dust bowl doesn’t evoke the same immaculate romance as, maybe, the hued beach sunsets of Gibraltar. But ultimately, it’s a better analogy for what you’d call a healthy, pragmatic and long-lasting relationship. This sentiment is the gist of Remind Me Tomorrow: there is no smooth, panoramic glide over these treacherous emotional landscapes. Van Etten instead takes a king-sized four-wheel drive, grinding and seething her way through. It’s as much a textural record as it is a melodic one: organs and synths cut like serrated knives, drums sound crunchy and colossal in bonkers Dave Fridmann-like fashion, and Van Etten’s voice incisively penetrates where it would otherwise swerve across different registers.
Indeed, Remind Me Tomorrow is appropriately messy, and congruently, day-to-day life is a pretty messy ongoing process. The key to tomorrow often means recognizing the ephemeral beauty within that mess. Befittingly, the lustrous West Coast balladry of ‘Malibu’ is enveloped by cavernous synth textures. “The first half of the song was written when my (current) partner took me to Malibu for the first time,” Van Etten reminisces. “I finished the second half in New York. When I came home from the studio, I walked in the door and I saw him cleaning his bathroom in his pajama’s playing The Black Crowes. That was a special moment, because it became an actual story, a little vignette, and I don’t tend to write like that. It represented where I was at in my heart.”
Within these type of silly, banal moments – moments most people tend to bury and forget – Van Etten has a special knack for finding universal meaning. That trait goes beyond just her songs. Before pursuing music full-time in her early twenties, Van Etten was momentarily immersed in photography. “When I was learning (photography), as soon as I took classes, I started framing things regularly,” she reveals. “I took a photo class in high school, and also one in my twenties, which is why Are We There has a photograph of my friend Rebecca. I’m always thinking: ‘That’s a beautiful moment. I wish I had gotten my camera out two-minutes earlier.’”
During my last encounter with Van Etten, back in the spring of 2014, she was restlessly teetering at an impasse. Life on the road wasn’t always as blissful as, say, driving down an open road with a loved one. Time wasn’t a luxury, but a prison. Her best friend eventually moved to Indiana, married with two children, while Van Etten was left wondering whether it was too late to embrace domestic life within the frantic clockwork of touring and recording. Meanwhile, time kept ticking away.
To make things more confusing, Van Etten came off a long-term relationship with someone who begged her to choose between her career or her relationship. While recording Are We There, she gave her then-boyfriend two pictures: the one of her best friend that made the album cover, and another she made of a pile of trash resting next to a brick wall with the word ‘Profound’ sprayed on it. “It sums me up,” she concluded at the time. “I’m heavy, but also a total joker.”
That being said, there has to be a workable balance. Van Etten realized she needed to hit the breaks and regain control. “Generally, I feel lucky to work with people that ‘hear’ the artist. My label Jagjaguwar has been amazing: when I told them I needed a break, they were very understanding. Even though it was hard for my band to hear, they wanted me to be okay first and foremost. They knew I wasn’t in a good place. I knew when to stop before I would self-destruct. I knew that I needed a sense of stability. I needed to live my life a little bit if I wanted to have anything interesting left to write about.”
Sharon Van Etten - Jupiter 4 (Official Video) - YouTube
On Remind Me Tomorrow choosing between heaviness and playfulness no longer feels like an ultimatum. And truth be told, the album doesn’t unfold as a radical departure either: like ‘Afraid Of Nothing’ – the opening track of Are We There – ‘I Told You Everything’ is a piano-ballad that starts in C. Despite those sonic parallels, this isn’t a rousing torch song. A louring synth swell and fractured beat give the impression of slow pacing in darkness with a candle, keeping its quivering flame alit within the palms of your hand. Attempting to peer through still feels invasive; nevertheless, Van Etten lets the listener eavesdrop in on a candid conversation. The opening lyric: “Sitting at the bar, I told you everything / You said: ‘Holy shit, you almost died’”. In all its ambiguity, you can picture a heavy mutual revelation of sorts taking place. But at the same time, the ability to joke about something heavy signals new wisdom and perspective, because you’re no longer living it, you’re ready to move on.
When Are We There was released, Van Etten was still ‘living’ the songs, which attributed to some of her most brutally intimate lyrics. Remind Me Tomorrow embraces the beauty of perspective. Hindsight. Writing the album on “borrowed time” – between her many other projects, endeavors, and responsibilities – serendipitously forced her to reassess song ideas within radically different places, situations, and mental states. “I would return to these songs at different intervals in my life. Most of the songs I started writing before I was pregnant, and I would return to them during my pregnancy, and I finished them after I had my kid.”
Sometimes, the pronoun of a song would change several times, Van Etten reveals, giving her music a more elemental quality. Closer ‘Stay’ for instance was written with both her partner and her son in mind. “I started writing this song before I had a kid. It’s one of the few songs I wrote on guitar. I found myself staring at my kid, who was napping. The only word I had written in the chorus was ‘stay’. I found myself crying because I was looking at him. I just kept thinking: ‘I just want you to be okay, I want you to know I’m not going to leave you.’ So when I started writing for my partner it was like …[in affectionate tone] ‘I’m never going to leave you, baby!’, and now it’s: [earnestly] ‘I’m never going to leave you’.”
Despite its more bizarro sonic makeup, Remind Me Tomorrow oozes more levity than any of Van Etten’s previous records, further proof that noise and discord can be agents of joy, not just signifiers of nihilism or dread. ‘Stay’ is no exception: Van Etten’s voice is drenched in strangely sangfroid overdubs and effects, further inducing a sense of containment. Raising a child is an exchange, not a sacrifice: its life and growth are just as much a source of nourishment and clarity. And within very tenuous political times, that’s a precious certainty. “Letting go to let you lead / I don’t know how it ends”, Van Etten sings in a whispered inflection. The most significant catalyst of this understanding, according to her, was letting go of the stray life that elicited all those fatalist impulses, a slow burn towards self-acceptance. That also meant leaving the city that has shaped her art for the better part of her career.
“I lived in New York for fifteen years, and I feel like it’s a very different place now, from when I first moved there. Some of my friends who were artists in the community that I came up in either don’t live there anymore or are working so much that we don’t see each other. I tried working there to make a new record, but it just wasn’t flowing and I didn’t feel it.“ The naivéte of building a fertile creative life in a heavily gentrified, expensive neighborhood shrieks most urgently in ‘Seventeen’. This sobering eighties new wave stomp captures Van Etten at her most primal: “I know what you’re gonna be / I know that you’re gonna be!”, she yelps with Pat Benatar-like austerity. You can almost picture her turning the hourglass with an emphatic slam.
‘Wild and free’ has an expiration date, and fortunately, that coveted tabula rasa-moment presented itself. “I got an opportunity to spend six months in Los Angeles, rent-free. I was just on call for a job for six months, I only ended up working for eight days, I ended up meeting a lot of other musicians and people took me under their wing. And I kind of fell into a community there; I finally met (producer) John Congleton. We had a coffee and we got along really well. It felt very natural actually. I was nervous to move to LA, because I never connected to the city before. I also never spent more than 24 hours there because of the way touring works, so it was a lot of new experiences. By taking a chance and trying something new, I made something better than I thought I would have.”
Sharon Van Etten - Comeback Kid - YouTube
The slower pace of Los Angeles granted Van Etten a foot in the door to compartmentalize her interests. Not to devolve to ageism, but when you hit your mid-thirties, compartmentalizing activities becomes pretty much essential to stay sane. In your teens and twenties, making a simple dinner fraught of three deadlines circling your brain can be quite a challenge. I for one, have botched far too many meals while mired within the frantic energy of my other work. But in my thirties, I learned to treat cooking as this separate mission, and I got better at it because of that shift in mentality. Still, I can only imagine how much careful time management is required in Sharon Van Etten’s life. She tentatively laughs at this loopy assumption: “I also like cooking and experimenting with food, I love entertaining, I love having guests over, I love exposing people to records… I love… I think, normal stuff?”
One of her favorite books happens to be Ray Bradbury’s bundle Zen In The Art Of Writing, which has been helpful in guiding all these impulses rushing from within. “I remembered (Bradbury’s) mindset well: to sit down and write without thinking what it is or will become, or whether or not you share it with people. It’s simply about making that time to create. You have the choice to share it or not. Just the act of writing itself, you notice yourself relax and let your mind wander. Whether it’s the fact that you caught yourself singing, writing your journal – even just the art of letting your mind wander. I feel like everyone is so driven all the time: to work, to ‘get it’. There are so many things to do in life: especially as you get older, as you get more responsibilities and tackle more extremes.”
The dilemma of owning any good book is whether you keep the knowledge as a reminder for later, or pass it onto someone who might need it. The sheer dopamine rush after turning that final page – that cascading feeling of acquiring all these fresh impulses, ready to be processed and (re)defined within your frame of reference – is often intimidating. Good luck storing all the information in your head, knowing full well you’ll forget most of it down the line. Van Etten perfectly sums it up herself: “I need to let my mind wander more often… I need to re-read that book, actually!”
As mentioned before, Sharon Van Etten enjoys framing things. And the truism of ‘a picture speaks a thousand words’ never rings truer than at this stage of her life. “The album cover is a photograph of my friend’s kid’s playroom. My friend, (film director) Katherine Dieckmann, for whom I wrote the score for Strange Weather,” Van Etten says. “She became a friend and a mentor for me, because I up to that point, I had never done a score before. I was in this transition of time, trying to take a break from the road, learn how to be creative while being home. So she held my hand throughout the process, really took me under her wing, instilled all this confidence in me in a world that I wasn’t all that familiar with.”
During Strange Weather’s premiere at Toronto International Film Festival two years ago, Van Etten finally told Dieckmann she was pregnant. “I was crying and she was crying. We were celebrating, but I was also scared: ‘I don’t know what I’m doing; I don’t know how I’m going to be an artist, a mother, and an actress.’ But Kathy is an old school New Yorker, she has been there since the 70s. She was a long-form writer for Rolling Stone, she directed early music videos for people like REM and Kristin Hersh. She was friends with a lot of Athens-based bands in the 90s. But then she moved on more into the film world, she did The Adventures of Pete & Pete, she became a professor at Columbia University, teaching screenwriting, she married a photographer. They own apartments across the hall from each other that they don’t want to let go of, because of the NYC rent control. They had two kids and lived in two separate apartments.”
Somehow, despite all these disparate trajectories, Dieckmann has made it work. “So when I told her I was scared, she just laughed at me. She then pulled her phone out of her pocket and showed me that photograph, and she just said: you’ll figure it out. And ever since, I’ve used that photograph as a source of comfort.” Amidst the vibrant image of two children going off on a tangent amidst an assembly of stuffed animals, blankets and toys, there’s an elegant picture of Van Etten buried on the floor: sleek dark bangs, grey shirt, pale face.
Perhaps another tongue-in-cheek acknowledgment that beneath all the messiness, that deserter’s spirit is ever present, full of yearning. This time, though, she figured out which direction to funnel it. On ‘You Shadow’, Van Etten intones, with unflinching hubris: “Open your mind / And it’s easy to find where I am.”
Remind Me Tomorrow is out January 18 via Jagjaguwar. For more information about Sharon Van Etten, including forthcoming tour dates, please visit her official website. Read Katherine Dieckmann’s beautiful essay for The Talkhouse, about making the video for Van Etten’s single ‘Jupiter 4’.
We've only just welcomed in the new year yet the first festival of 2019 is nearly upon us. Next weekend (11th-13th January) sees the fourth edition of Rockaway Beach and DiS will be in attendance over the course of its three days.
Situated in the Butlins holiday camp at Bognor Regis on the south-east coast, this year's event will play host to over thirty live acts, talks, and DJs with many DiS favourites scheduled to perform. What's more, the organisers have cleverly laid out the schedule so there are no overlaps between acts and stages, making it possible to see everything on the bill if you so wish.
Tickets are still available, with prices varying dependent on accommodation. In the meantime, here are 10 acts we're most looking forward to seeing.
(Sunday 13th, Centre Stage @ 19:30)
Now based in Berlin, Eddie Argos and Art Brut put out their fifth long-player Wham! Bang! Pow! Let's Rock Out! last year and despite being their first release for seven years, it was as if they hadn't been away. Drafted in as late replacements here after Spring King called it a day recently, we suspect their Sunday evening slot on the Centre Stage will be one of the weekend's highlights.
Art Brut - Hospital! - YouTube
Desert Mountain Tribe
(Saturday 12th, Reds @ 14:00)
Coming off the back of arguably their most successful year to date, Desert Mountain Tribe make a welcome return to Rockaway Beach having initially played here in 2016. Expect a potent mix of material from their two albums, Either That Or The Moon and Om Parvat Mystery.
Desert Mountain Tribe - Coming Down (Official Video) - YouTube
Echo And The Bunnymen
(Sunday 13th, Centre Stage @ 21:15)
Hard to believe as it may be, Echo And The Bunnymen celebrated their fortieth anniversary as a band in 2018, which is probably why they're one of the most popular bookings since Rockaway Beach started. With a back catalogue to die for, not to mention influencing a plethora of artists over the past four decades, their Sunday evening headline slot should provide a perfect finale to the weekend's festivities.
Echo and the Bunnymen - Seven Seas (Official Music Video) - YouTube
(Saturday 12th, Centre Stage @ 22:30)
Another artist whose roots lay in the original wave of punk, having put out his first record back in 1978, Gary Numan has been a pivotal artist at the forefront of numerous genres and movements ever since. Now, twenty albums into his career - the most recent of which Savage (Songs From A Broken World) came out to widespread critical acclaim in 2017 - his appearance at Rockaway Beach represents a bit of a coup for the festival.
Gary Numan - My Name Is Ruin (Official Video) - YouTube
(Friday 11th, Centre Stage @ 21:30)
Having released one of 2018's finest debuts, Goat Girl are another welcome addition to this year's line up. While the likes of 'Country Sleaze', 'Slacker Drool' and 'Creep' have become live favourites with those who've seen them, expect one or two new songs in the set too.
Goat Girl - Viper Fish - YouTube
Laetitia Sadier Source Ensemble
(Friday 11th, Centre Stage @ 20:00)
While news that Stereolab would be getting back together and playing Primavera Sound in May has us jumping for joy, Laetitia Sadier's solo show is another reason to be excited for Rockaway Beach next weekend. Performing with her Source Ensemble, expect to hear a career spanning set with maybe one or two surprises thrown in for good measure.
Laetitia Sadier "Then, I Will Love You Again" (Official Video) - YouTube
Lorelle Meets The Obsolete
(Sunday 13th, Reds @ 17:00)
De Facto, the fifth album from Mexican experimental duo Lorelle Meets The Obsolete is already an early contender for album of 2019. Come see what all the fuss is about when they take to the Reds Stage on Sunday teatime - we guarantee you won't be disappointed.
Lorelle Meets The Obsolete – Líneas En Hojas (Official Video) - YouTube
(Friday 11th, Reds @ 18:00)
Fusing post-punk and psychedelic rock with wistful and at times seedy lyrics, these four witchcraft fanatics from London have fast become one of the most entertaining live bands on the UK circuit over the past eighteen months. With a long-awaited follow-up to 2017's self-titled debut just around the corner, expect a smattering of new material alongside old favourites like 'Mermaids' and 'Cat Lady'.
MADONNATRON - MERMAIDS - YouTube
(Saturday 12th, Centre Stage @ 21:30)
Another band appearing at Rockaway Beach off the back of their most successful year to date. 2018 started on a high for The Orielles and ended on one too, with debut album Silver Dollar Moment picking up numerous end of year plaudits and most recent single 'Bobbi's Second World' also receiving high praise in many places.
The Orielles - Sugar Tastes Like Salt - YouTube
The Spook School
(Saturday 12th, Reds @ 15:00)
This Edinburgh four-piece have been making a name for themselves on the DIY indiepop circuit for some time now. Third album Could It Be Different? came out last year on American independent Slumberland Records and represents arguably their finest body of work to date.
The Spook School - Body (Official Music Video) - YouTube
For more information on Rockaway Beach, including where to purchase tickets and full running orders, please visit the festival's official website.
Lounge. Twee Pop. Tropicalia. Easy Listening. Jazz. Funk. Giallo. City Pop. Indie Pop. Baggy-Madchester. Ye-ye. 60’s Soul. Video Game Music. Downtempo. House. Nu-jazz. Art Pop. Ambient Pop. Library Music. Beach Rock. 90’s Alternative Rock. Electronica.
Every one of the genres and ideas listed above were either initially, or eventually, incorporated into the sound of Shibuya-Kei. To call something “A Beginner’s Guide To: Shibuya Kei” is to emphasize the ‘Beginner’ part of that statement. Shibuya-kei’s cultural moment, and it's ensuing cultural monopoly, is a sprawling epic which describes Japan itself throughout the 1990s. To tell that story though, you have to go back even further.
At the end of WW2 Japan was a broken state. Their industry and institutions were utterly devastated, and worse yet, their very sense of themselves was brought to its knees. The Jewel Voice Broadcast quite literally disintegrated every bit of identity and purpose that the Japanese empire had set out for itself. But from destitution rose vigor, and through the ’60s, 70’s and 80’s Japan experienced an almost unprecedented rate of economic growth, growing hand-over-fist until the country stood as one of the world’s most formidable economic players by the mid-80s.
Political Demonstration Turns Violent As Police Attack Union Workers, 1950s
Gone were the bombed out neighborhoods and listless feelings of defeat. The nation had regained its feet, but not necessarily its identity. Questions remained of what it meant to be Japanese. Not just in a limited sense, but in the totality of Japanese life, as western culture and multi-nationalism began pouring into the country. Something which many militant Japanese resisted. Obsessions with jazz music and French ye-ye began to form communities of Japanese urbanites with complex musical palettes and far-out postmodernist notions of Japanese identity.
Eventually, at the end of that long existential struggle in the waning years of the 1980s, a decade which had also birthed shibuya-kei’s parent genre City Pop, the genre of Shibuya-kei arrived. Named after a small burrow of Tokyo, the Shibuya district (the name literally means “Shibuya-style”) where the genre had started, Shibuya-kei initially fused French ye-ye, jazz, bossa nova, lounge music, funk, and 60's psychedelic pop into a futuristic retro-pastiche. The inevitable conclusion of Japan’s postmodernist culture carnivores.
Essential Album: Cornelius - Fantasma
Essential Song: Cornelius - 'Star Fruit Surf Rider'
A New Genre (1987-1990)
Pizzicato Five - Pizzicatomania!
Flipper's Guitar - Three Cheers For Our Side
During City Pop’s waning years in the urbanite boroughs of Tokyo, something was brewing. As lounge music and easy listening grew in popularity small Japanese variations were being added into the mix until suddenly lounge wasn’t there anymore, and instead Shibuya-kei remained. Determining when exactly that transition to Shibuya-kei occured is as difficult as describing what Shibuya-kei itself is, a struggle which is only further marred by the fact that when and where it started it is more of question of gradience.
The question entails a very personal determination of what the core elements of Shibuya-kei are, and that determination could then potentially involve three or so distinct artists and time frames. The most likely answer though, and the most universally agreed upon one, is that Pizzicato Five are the prodiginators of the genre. Even limited to that one name though it's a struggle to say when exactly Pizzicato Five became a Shibuya-kei band. My highly unpopular opinion is that the group never really achieved the sound they were going for until 1988, three albums into their career, though the popular convention is that their debut is Shibuya-kei’s start.
Their first album Couples, from 1987, has that central quality of twee pop mixed with easy listening and a retro aesthetic, but if you ask me it doesn’t quite feel like Shibuya-kei yet. Couples, along with it’s sister album Pizzicatomania!, feel so enslaved to its retro qualities that it could earnestly be mistaken for the classic 1960’s easy listening music it is parroting. It's a slave to its own aesthetic, where as their follow-up in 1988, Bellissima!, has a quality of life and exuberance to it that makes it feel wholly unique. The bright pop choruses and infectious retro melodies, which incorporate a strong element of soul, are a wholly unique revelation despite the album itself being a bit lacking, oft considered one of Pizzicato’s weakest efforts.
Pizzicato Five - This Can't Be Love (これは恋ではない) - YouTube
The following year, 1989, as the genre began in earnest, an underground Shibuya-kei arms race began. Starting with the release of Pizzicato’s best album to date, On Her Majesty’s Request, which melded satirical 60’s spy concepts and orchestral retro pop with twee, and then followed-up by the debut album of fellow Shibuya-kei originators Flipper’s Guitar. At the time of their debut, Three Cheers For Our Side, Flipper’s Guitar were made up of five members, but the group would shrink to the duo of Keigo Oyamada and Kenji Ozawa after their debut’s commercial failure.
(Note: Keigo Oyamada is the most important person in Shibuya-kei and possibly Japanese music for the next 20 years, so don’t forget him. His name will appear a lot.)
While their debut effort would land as a bit of a commercial flop it would grow to an influential and legendary stature in the coming years, and the release of their second effort in 1990, Camera Talk, would herald the explosion of Shibuya-kei’s popularity. It’s first single 'Young, Alive, In Love' would become an indie smash after its placement on a popular TV show, sending the group onto national tours and TV adverts. From that moment Shibuya-kei was a phenomenon, and while just one year before it was the passion project of two small bands, by 1994 it would become a music-industry wide concept. An idea which was reinvented and contorted every month and moment.
Since Flipper’s Guitar had already won the race to commercial success, which Pizzicato Five would also achieve with their 1991 album This Year’s Girl, the challenge now was to incorporate sampling and alternative dance music into Shibuya-kei, two concepts which would become central to the genre in the coming years.
What is this? (1991-1996)
Flipper’s Guitar - Doctor’s Head World Tour
Pizzicato Five - This Year’s Girl
Cibo Matto - Viva La Woman!
Towa Tei - Future Listening!
Flipper’s Guitar would again just barely beat their competition to this dance revelation, releasing their dance-heavy Doctor’s Head World Tour a short two months before Pizzicato Five’s This Year’s Girl, an album which also incorporated new dance elements. Despite that common thread, the two albums actually offered up quite different narratives of where Shibuya-kei could go. DHWT plunged into the deep-underground sounds of shoegaze, dream pop, and neo-psychedelia, while TYG offered up a more sleek and traditional continuation of lounge pop into this new dance-oriented world.
Which competing vision “won” is really a matter of angle and preference as the next five years would see a massive explosion of Shibuya-kei into both directions. The core rivalry of these two bands which had driven the genre for these infant years would unfortunately come to an end though. In 1991 Flipper’s Guitar would break up, halting the band’s growing momentum.
Flipper's Guitar - Groove Tube - YouTube
In the same year, Original Love would release their second album to significant popular success, Fishmans would release their Shibuya-kei/Dub/Reggae fusion debut album, and Havana Exotica, the precursor to the highly influential Buffalo Daughter, would release their debut album as well.
Which is to say, the genre was beginning to split into a whole lot of different directions. Popular groups were beginning to toy with the sound by fusing it with the still highly popular world of city-pop and emphasized the melodic choruses and upbeat rhythms. Indie kids were pulling the genre into more dance emphasized worlds with both electronic and reggae, while rock-centric groups were fusing it with noise-pop and indie-rock.
By 1994, Towa Tei would release his debut album and magnum-opus Future Listening! which brought together the new worlds of Shibuya-kei and downtempo music, combine them into something not too far removed from AIR’s Moon Safari almost four years before that album was released. The lead single from that album, 'Technova', would also eventually be sampled by A Tribe Called Quest for their album The Love Connection, and it provided a breakthrough moment for both genres as downtempo exploded onto the Japanese underground, and into the DNA of Shibuya-kei.
"Technova" TOWA TEI with Bebel Gilberto - YouTube
That same year Kenji Ozawa of Flipper’s Guitar would release his popular and critically adored second album Life which blended Shibuya-kei and ska music, while his fellow bandmate Keigo would release his own debut album, The First Question Award, to an equally warm reception. The First Question Award furthered the former duo’s exploration of progressive pop, dance music, and indie pop in a way that would eventually lead to the genre’s culmination a few years later. At the time it was unclear who would be the duo’s most successful member, as the competition between them became a matter of meaningful discussion.
By 1995, Kahimi Karie had released her breakout EP My First Karie, the third EP made in collaboration with Keigo Oyamada as the primary producer, lending weight and significance to the emerging world of female singer/songwriters in the Shibuya-kei space. Importantly, this would including Takako Minekawa, who would release her debut album the same year, Hi-Posi, whose debut album would also arrive, and Cibo Matto, whose debut album Viva La Woman! would arrive the following year.
Viva La Woman! would represent one of the genre’s first big international crossover moments, garnering reviews from big publications like Pitchfork, Entertainment Weekly, and Spin. The group's abstract blend of art-pop, Shibuya-kei, and trip-hop was artful and forward thinking, garnering comparisons to Serge Gainsbourg, as well as inciting embarrassing put-down’s like ‘bitchy rap sounds’ by none other than Pitchfork's founder Ryan Schreiber. Hope he’s embarrassed about that one, but regardless, the site took it down after Pitchfork achieved some new found success a few years later. The album was a masterstroke of progressive electronic sounds, and began uncovering Shibuya-kei to western audiences.
It was also an important crossover that was fundamental to what was about to happen next.
01. Cibo Matto - Apple - YouTube
Other prominent releases include Buffalo Daughter’s debut, Pizzicato Five’s Bossanova 2001, Momus’The Philosophy of Momus (A Scottish experimental musician who transplanted to Japan in the 90s and became an important figure and producer within the Shibuya-kei scene), Sunny Day Service’s third album, Tokyo, which abandoned their former Shibuya-kei style and turned them into indie rock sensations, and the Sushi 3003 compilation by Bungalow records.
Never The Same (1997-1999)
Cornelius - Fantasma
Pizzicato Five - Happy End of the World
Fantastic Plastic Machine - Luxury
In 1997, Cornelius would release Fantasma. Like My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless or Fishmans’ Long Season before it, it so perfectly captured, elevated, and honed the sounds of its genre that it inadvertently also killed it. Fantasma left no room to explore or innovate within the core sound, or at least, no passion in the independent music scene to do so. Shibuya-kei would soon begin scattering to the winds of electronic, art pop, and J-pop in just a short year’s time.
Making “classic”-style Shibuya-kei after Fantasma would make you a retro act, it was that powerful of a line. With its heady psychedelic production and schizophrenia sense of wonderment, it both cannibalized Shibuya-kei and also turned Cornelius’ focus onto more international genres like folktronica, indietronica, and progressive pop, genres which would be the primary direction of focus for Cornelius’ solo output following his Shibuya-kei magnum opus. It would become an international sensation in the world of independent music, gathering ecstatically glowing reviews the world over, and even better ones 20 years later for it’s highly anticipated reissue, one which reaffirmed its position as one of the most substantial albums to have ever come from the genre, and from the country as a whole.
MIC CHECK - YouTube
Around the same time, Pizzicato Five would also release their own genre-cracking magnum opus. In keeping with the tradition of always being a moment after Keigo, Happy End of the World would come out just one month after Cornelius’ Fantasma. The album incorporated elements of drum and bass as well as breakbeat to their still very traditional lounge pop songwriting, simultaneously reached back to the genre’s now waning roots, as well as speaking to its future. Featuring collaborations from a wealth of artists (including Keigo Oyamada), but as usual, masterminded by Pizzicato Five’s founder Konishi Yasuhara, it would stand as the group’s last monumental statement before their break-up in 2001. Not before the group could release a string of fan-pleaser albums almost every year from 1997-2001 which were pleasant, though inessential.
In this same period, Fantastic Plastic Machine would release his second album Luxury, further expanding on his debut album’s fusion of house music and Shibuya-kei, pushing the Towa Tei brand of downtempo Shibuya-kei onto the dance floor, with higher BPMs and repetitive grooves, but still deeply indebted to Shibuya-kei and bossa nova. Ironically the album, despite its deep appreciation of Shibuya-kei, spearheaded a very real movement in the electronic dimension of Shibuya-kei away from the genre itself and towards the yet to be formed genre of Picopop, a genre which would take shape in the coming few years as a cutesy form of dense electronic music, lead by former Shibuya-kei groups like Capsule and Hi-Posi.
The 2001 break-up of Pizzicato Five would end being a prophetic statement as once again Cornelius would change the genre completely that year.
Other prominent releases include Takako Minekawa’sFun 9 produced entirely by her then husband Keigo Oyamada (which continued in the sonic style of his Fantasma period), Buffalo Daughter’s incredibly noisy New Rock, Kahimi Karie’sK.K.K.K.K., and Hideki Kaji’sTea.
New Horizons (2000-)
Cornelius - Point
Lamp - Koibito He
In 2001, Cornelius would release Point, an album which further embraced his growing infatuation with folktronica, pure indie pop, and art pop. Qualifying as Shibuya-kei in only the most abstract and contextual manner. The music no longer sounded like Shibuya-kei, but then again, what did Shibuya-kei even sound like? The album would be labeled as Shibuya-kei solely because the man himself had been an artist in the genre for so long, but the spacey guitar and synth-heavy production sounded more like Stereolab or The Notwist then any actual Shibuya-kei album.
The album further emphasized his signature stereo-panned production style which he had played around with on Fantasma, as well as his previous albums. On the song 'Point Of View Point', locations such as ‘left’, ‘right’, and ‘up’ are called out by Keigo while being hard panned in the mix to those locations, giving a fully 3D headphone experience and dropping the pastiche and artifice of his early work in exchange for something tangible and locatable, placing the listener into a genuine sonic world.
Cornelius would turn his back on the genre he made, revolutionized, and then eventually killed, fully separating himself from its name. Of course, the genre would live on, but without his influence, or perhaps from other natural causes, it would only stagnate and disappear throughout the country. Electronic acts would embrace the new worlds of electro-pop and picopop, while indie/rock groups would latch onto the newer trends of jazz-pop or noise-pop.
CORNELIUS - Point Of View Point - YouTube
Groups like Capsule slowly morphed the sounds of Shibuya-kei into picopop, and then into electro-pop and electro house under the watchful eye of producer Yasutaka Nakata, who would eventually produce for massive J-Pop artists like Perfume and Kyary Pamyu Pamyu. This new sound spearheaded by him would go on to become the definitive sound of J-Pop in the 2010s, influencing western indie scenes like PC Music/Bubblegum Base, and other international pop scenes like K-Pop.
On the more indie side of things, Shibuya-kei gave into noise-pop and jazz-pop. One or two prominent groups, primarily Lamp, would find a nice crossover between jazz-pop, Shibuya-kei, and bossa-nova, putting together beautiful albums that were less concerned with artistic challenge and contemporary significance as they were with patient and delightful song-writing. Their second album Koibito He has become an independent international hit, finding huge fandoms through online music forums and online music ranking sites. The group would remain active and unchanged throughout the next decade and into the next, releasing an album just this year (as of publishing).
ひろがるなみだ - Lamp - YouTube
Other prominent releases include Halcali’sHalcali Bacon, which combined Shibuya-kei with hip-hop and pop rap, Plus-Tech Squeeze Box’sCartooom!, the soundtrack to the video game Katamari Damacy which brought Shibuya-kei to international gaming audiences, and bo-en’sPale Machine, which was one of the first western electronic albums to show strong Shibuya-kei influence.
Shibuya-kei persists today only in the most fragile sense, with just a few retro acts evoking its sound for nostalgia and simplistic aesthetic ends, but in concept it is timeless. The postmodern sampling and retro fetishism that defined its sonic ideas live on through the collective multinationalism of Japan’s art, which both draws from without and within simultaneously. Striving for a perfect balance between trends and personal expression that is endemic of the Japanese cultural landscape.
With the possible exception of Phil Spector, Brits do Christmas music way better than the Americans. Across the pond they have the big, sentimental celebrations of Mariah and Kelly Clarkson, or the drippy schmaltz of Bing Crosby and Andy Williams. Over here we have just three moods: pissed (Slade), miserable (Wham!) or cynical (Wizzard). The best (‘Fairytale of New York’) manage all three. On their second collaboration Scots indiepopfolk stalwarts Aiden Moffat and RM Hubbert are firmly part of that tradition.
Musically the watchword is ‘warmth’, from the literal crackling fire that opens the record to the child joyfully singing ‘Jingle Bells’ right at the end. Hubbert’s arrangements are lovely, centred around folksy finger picking, the lowing of a cello and keening of a violin. It’s always beautiful. ‘A Ghost Story for Christmas’, the song that inspired the whole project, is a clear highlight, skittish, jazzy drums driving along the plaintive picking, ‘Desire Path’ traces a direct line to Bon Iver’s For Emma, Forever Ago, quirky, minimalist beats underpinning the acoustic lonely guitar and poetry, while ‘The Fir Tree’ is disquieting and dark under Moffats’ narration.
From his days in Arab Strap onwards Aiden Moffat has always been a master storyteller, and as he’s aged his poetry has become more concise. Here he’s on impeccable form, telling simple, heartbreakingly relatable tales in just a few short lines. “How can absence fill a room? How can nothing hang so heavy?... You better watch out and you better not cry” he sings on ‘A Ghost Story For Christmas’, concluding, wryly “Oh come all ye unfaithful”. ‘Ode To Plastic Mistletoe’ is especially bleak, with its resigned, displaced and disappointed modern Christmas and New Year booze ups, where “the bargain fairy lights are all flash and fizzle, there’s no snow, just damp and drizzle”. There’s more here than a miserablists’ Christmas party though. Moffat’s great skill is his subtlety and, while for some, ripping puns as the tears splash onto the turkey would be enough, Moffat’s take on Christmas is richer than that. ‘Such Shall You Be’ has a little girl asking the narrator ”who’s that old man in the mirror?”, leading him to contemplate his aged face, seeing his tufts of grey hair, plump cheeks and ”eyes laden with the sacks of seniority.” Our hero attempts to slink off to the bathroom to look at his phone and feel sorry for himself, but a plea from his daughter changes the narrative. ”I can see the old man again,’ he says ”and he’s smiling”.
Aside from the original songs here, which are uniformly excellent, simultaneously warm and unfathomably sad, the choice of borrowed material is perhaps most telling of the tone of the record. Mud’s ‘Lonely This Christmas’ is stripped of its ridiculous nostalgia to reveal a gentle folk tune of utter heartbreak (Los Campesinos! did the same thing a few years ago, but Moffat’s bleak vocal makes this even sadder), while Yazoo’s ‘Only You’, a Christmas number one for the Flying Pickets in 1983, feels delicate and hopeful. A narrated rewrite of an old Hans Christian Anderson story, ‘The Fir Tree’, in which a sentient Christmas tree is excitedly decorated and then burned alive, is bleakly comic. These are offset by a straight reading of a Charles Dickens essay on the spirit and joy of the season. It’s unsentimental and unfussy, as both Moffat and Dickens’ best stuff usually is, but still radiates a simple joy in celebrating a special time of the year.