Saturday, November 05, 2005

Losing My Edge, Pt. 2: Microcosm

Tabuchi Hisako (R): "Oh, stop whining and grow some balls, Mukai."

As disillusioning as a larger cultural disconnect may be, nothing hurts like a favourite artist falling off. This has happened to anyone who has ever loved music: that rueful day when repeated spins of So-And-So's new album failed to reveal the genius behind past achievements.

So it is with Shutoku Mukai. The indie-rock experimentalist first rose to notoriety with the late, great Number Girl. I've raved about Fukuoka's finest at length, and with good reason: they packed the hardest punch this side of Drive Like Jehu while boasting smarter songwriting than any of their post-hardcore peers. Allow me to present Exhibit A, from their stunning major-label debut School Girl Distortional Addict:

Pixie Du - Number Girl

The title says it all: quirkily catchy college rock delivered with meteoric force. But all relationships end one of two ways - death or bust. After four albums and seven years, Number Girl splintered in several directions. Bassist Kentaro Nakao pursued a quixotic solo career, guitarist Tabuchi Hisako joined punk powerhouse bloodthirsty butchers, and drummer Ahito Inazawa (briefly) enlisted in Mukai's new endeavor, Zazen Boys. While Number Girl had cracked the confines of rote indie-rock, Zazen Boys offered Mukai a chance to indulge all of his musical whimsy. "In Number Girl, we always had certain boundaries as a rock band," he explained to the Japan Times. "There was just no way that we could mess with something like Prince. With Zazen Boys, I feel that I can experiment."

Quiet Sleep Stick - Zazen Boys

And experiment he does. "Quiet Sleep Stick" gives a glimpse of Zazen Boys' grab-bag eclecticism: stutter-start rhythms, caffeinated wannabe-Beat vocals, and expanded instrumentation push the band towards the proggy realm of rock intellectuals like King Crimson. Note that I said "push towards," not "push into." Mukai & Co. can capture neither the narrative melodrama and behemoth majesty of In the Wake of Poseidon, nor the dark dizziness of Crimson's technical pinnacle, Discipline. Instead, it sounds like Steely Dan mastered in "Volcanic" mode minus the AM Gold melodies. Mukai dresses the music to impress, but emasculates it in the process.

You Make Me Feel So Bad - Zazen Boys

Solitary songwriter though he may be, "You Make Me Feel So Bad" demonstrates how Number Girl's strength lay as much in performance as composition. The song opens on a serrated riff that recalls the punk noir of Public Image Ltd. or Number Girl's own Sappukei... and proceeds to go nowhere for three minutes. Had this been a real Number Girl track, Hisako's fiery fretwork and Ahito's machinegun drumming would have blown the song stratospheric about thirty seconds in. Instead, we're treated to a faux-soul falsetto that even Beck abandoned and one of the most pusillanimous guitar solos since your high school band. As predictable as the soft/LOUD dynamic may be, it's preferable to a song as flatlined as this. So much for the man who once ruled via volume alone.

Wanderlust - Toddle

So now we turn to Toddle, Tabuchi Hisako's post-Number Girl project. After three years of taking a backseat to bloodthirsty butchers, the quartet dropped their debut, I Dedicate D Chord, a couple of months ago. That it bests the whole bloodthirsty butchers catalogue is no suprise; Hisako has always been a more imaginative player than Yoshimura Hideki. But Toddle makes me think Number Girl was more matriarchal than only in name: Mukai may be male, but it sounds like Hisako's the one with the balls. There's more insouciant energy and slash-and-burn intensity packed into I Dedicate D Chord's thirty-nine minutes than in both Zazen Boys albums. Granted, Toddle's songs are several shades sunnier than her old bandmate's, but it's hard for Hisako to hide how much fun she's having. Toddle are superbly prepared to play the Breeders to Number Girl's (very self conscious) Pixies.

Hey, maybe with a little luck, in ten years, Mukai will pull his head out of his ass and we'll get a reunion, too.

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