Polyvinyl Records, 2012
Review by Kent Manthie
Born and raised in Tokyo, Shugo Tokumaru has been around longer than you might realize if you’re not a fan. His American debut album was entitled Night Piece.
Tokumaru is a talented multi-instrumentalist, known for his use of 100s of traditional and non-traditional (i.e., “Western” and “Non-Western”) instruments on his albums.
His latest album is no different in the amazing department, talent-wise – In Focus, is an artful, pop record that only the Japanese could pull off – not corny or bubble gum, but with elements of kitsch, fun and a “who cares what they think” attitude.
This 15-song album is full of songs that average in at around the 3:00 range, all sung in his native Japanese, although almost all the songs have English titles. It begins with the minute-long “Circle” and seamlessly goes into the rest of the work, “Katachi” being the next one.
Tokumaru’s biggest selling, most commercial album was his 2010 work in Japan, Port Entropy, which broke through the Japanese top 40. But he’s been around for quite a bit longer. He used to be a member of the Japanese band, The Gellers, with whom he started writing songs and playing when he was just 17 years old. After he finished high school he decided to travel overseas, spending most of the time in Los Angeles, where he played in a jazz band and on his own time, recorded some music at his home. In 2003 when he came back to Tokyo, he recorded a 10-track demo entitled Fragment.
In 2006, Shugo released his 2nd album, L.S.T. and his 3rd CD, Exit in 2007. But, rewinding back to 2003, when he recorded the Fragment demo, it wound up in the hands of an acquaintance of Trevor Sias, the owner of indie label, Music Related. The label was quite impressed with Fragment as it was: in its demo-form, and wanted to release it “as is”, but Tokumaru was not thrilled with that idea. He next created an entirely new version of the album, which was released in the US in May of 2004.
Ironically, Night Piece, the 2010 release that wound up so commercially successful in Japan was meant, originally, to be a US-only release. But, after it started selling like hotcakes all over the web, it was finally released world-wide, or at least in a variety of other countries. Three months later (in August, 2004), it came out in Japan on the label Compare Notes.
Anyway, getting back to In Focus?, It is very much ear-candy, a sunny, bright spot in the indie world where there is so much introspection and polemical stuff, which is some of my favorite stuff, don’t get me wrong, but this is a nice distraction from the worries of the world for a bit. With song titles like “Katachi”, “Gamma”, “Decorate”, “Call”, “Micro Guitar Music”, etc. it kind of is self-descriptive, in a way. The cover of In Focus? is a vertigo-inspiring photo of the top floor of a staircase in a walk-up building, looking down the middle of the winding square-ish staircase, to as far down below as can be seen. At first glance, it’s not easy to tell that that’s what it is, but when you look closely it becomes clear.
Shugo is also responsible for not only all the instrumentation on In Focus? but he also produced the album, so it’s been a complete labor of love for him.
What I’ve been trying to get at here is basically that Tokumaru’s not a newcomer who’s trying to break in to the music scene; far from it. He’s, as I’ve written, been writing songs since he was 17, when he started to write for The Gellers, who he wasn’t a part of when they first started, but after they saw what he could accomplish they were happy to take him aboard. But soon after his stint in The Gellers, he took off on his own, where he really belongs, since he is such a musical whiz-kid. With his excellent songwriting and his great flair for “pop” sensibilities, in the same vein as fellow Asians, Shonen Knife (China) and Pizzicato Five (Japan), who, themselves used kitschy, but catchy pop tunes to the delight of their own respective countries and then, pretty quickly hit the US scene with what was a then-sorely needed change from the typical angst (usually “faux-angst”)-ridden, melancholy or outright angry, introspective grunge/dirge/noise-drone stuff that was and still is, basically, what can be considered post-“alternative” – the latter part of that label makes me cringe nowadays, because “alternative” used to actually mean something before it was co-opted by bad-intentioned corporate hacks, bent on only one thing: making money.
Basically, Tokumaru is a gifted musician: a brilliant songwriter and a very gifted multi-intstrumentalist, who has utilized a plethora of instruments both common and quite unknown to the Western ear and that is a real plus for the newbie breaking into the indie scene these days. There are already way too many bands that still do the drums, guitar, bass and sometimes keyboard thing and that’s really what rock is all about, but, hey, were on the eve of 2013 here, can’t we stop and realize that there’s a lot more to music (and life) than just “verse/chorus/verse/guitar solo/chorus, etc.”? Kudos to all the DIY-ers and non-controlled indie bands out there who have no qualms about experimenting with either using different, unknown (to them) things with which to make music or even doing stuff like has been done for a long time now, but doesn’t get the notice it deserves except within musician circles – which is to tune guitars differently, utilize the technology that is by no means new, of guitar synthesizers, drum synthesizers (and even just plain synthesizers taken 3 steps beyond what is thought capable or doable).
The essence of In Focus? is a pop-oriented album, as I’ve mentioned, no doubt. But that does not mean that it should be put on a shelf or otherwise pooh-poohed or just ignored – I know how much “pop” is a bad, pejorative term – much the way “emo” has become in the so-called “alternative” world, which is a term I can’t use anymore – it’s nothing but a commercial tool; just another box to stick bands in, in order to market them to the correct demographic. The right term now, at least for me, is “indie” or “independent”, “DIY” or whatever. With the technology available out there the corporate music machine is getting anachronistic and don’t be fooled by any attempts by them to blend in with genuine, hard-working, hard-living artists as opposed to shirkers who just want money and groupies.
First a little bit more of Shugo’s album: it is a trailblazing, iconoclastic CD that, while not by a newcomer, is still somewhat new to ears of many in this country. That’s too bad. It comes from listening to the radio too much. This guy is a veritable genius, in that he is a gifted songwriter and makes ethereal, plasticized pop music that can be stretched to many angles and not be changed in its whole. If there’s any real justice in the music world, more and more Shugos will come forward and start experimenting with sounds, obscure instrumentation and anything else that adds anything new to what is supposed to be an ever-changing scene – I mean, do you really want to hear the same 5 chords in multiple permutations? No matter how much they change things around, sound-wise, one will eventually hear chord progressions or riffs that were on some song 20-30 years ago and it may not even been a case of plagiarism – it just happens because there’s a limit when we don’t use the brains we have. Also -corporations treat the public as if we’re idiots, as if we’ll fall for the same old crap over and over nd think it’s new. Sounds like another way of telling the story of the Emperor’s New Clothes. “The music is naked!” (or “bare” – etc.).
As far as going on and on, trying to describe in detail the musical nature of Shugo’s work, I would, instead, recommend that you, at least give www.polyvinylrecords.com a visit, where you can listen to two of the songs from his new CD and then judge for yourself.