The (hilarious) manga Detroit Metal City follows a young man named Soichi who desperately wants to make Jens Lekman-esque Swedish pop music. However, he finds more success under his alter ego, the theatrical Johannes Krauser II, lead singer for the death metal band DMC. Whenever Soichi tries to sing sweet songs about walking around with a pretty girl and eating ice cream, nobody’s hearing that shit. Shugo Tokumaru’s fourth album, Port Entropy, strikes me as the sort of music Soichi aspires to – gentle indie pop – but not as laughable.
I’m a big fan of Japanese popular music, and not just as an after-effect of early teenage years as an otaku with internet access. More importantly, there’s a strange allure to foreign pop. Given only music and vocals, you get the pure effect of music without any lyrical context. Imagine listening to something like “Stacy’s Mom” without ever having to know that it’s about a dude wanting to bone his girlfriend’s mother. The song would be 20% better, and you’d be at least 5% happier with life. Science will agree with me.
Even with the language barrier, there’s a lot to appreciate when it comes to Tokumaru. He’s a multi-instrumentalist who records entirely on his own, so, unlike a prepackaged pop act, you can actually praise his work as opposed to having to mitigate it by praising his producers and songwriters for constructing good pop songs for him to sing. As a result, there’s an intimacy to the record that there may not have been if there was more than just one person involved. It’s the sound of just you and Shugo. Still, it’s not lo-fi, and to call it bedroom anything is a misnomer – the actual quality of the recording is clear and essential to the Sgt. Pepper’s wall-of-sound Beach Boys indie pop vibe he’s going for.
And, because Tokumaru apparently doesn’t half-ass things, there are a ton of instruments on this record. Pianos, guitars, whistles, drums, bells, glockenspiel, strings. And there’s Tokumaru’s own voice – soft and capable, somewhere between Sufjan Stevens and Andrew Bird on the multi-instrumentalist vocal scale. Port Entropy is lush and fully formed, surprisingly varied yet consistent. The overall feel of the record is fairly bright, but in the span of 37 minutes, Tokumaru can go from sweet indie pop (“Tracking Elevator”) to psychedelic waltz (“Linne”) to moody (“Straw”) to sunny (“Suisha”) to Bird-style string-plucking (“Malerina”). One gets a vague sense of pastiche from the proceedings, but it’s hard to pin down just what he’s imitating. Ultimately, Port Entropy falls on the right side of pastiche, keeping one from wondering why not just go straight to the source as opposed to listening to something derivative. It’s hard to write off pop music that’s so easy on the ears.
Occasionally, Port Entropy gets a touch too cute for its own good, and when this happens all I can do is compare the thing to cartoons. “River Low” is a bouncy repetition of its title phrase and a bass drum, accompanied by varying quirky instruments (triangle, and what I’m almost positive is a bassoon), giving the effect of a tour of a noisy farm where every animal is animated in that bouncing, fluid early Disney style. You can hear the ducks quacking and their necks stretching until the increasingly cacophonous build-up plateaus and the song abruptly ends. Similarly, the verses of “Drive-Thru” clank and chug like a cartoon train until he reins it all in with a quiet, sensible bridge and a catchy chorus.
Tokumaru’s first record, Night Piece, was originally exclusively released in the U.S. until he happened to gain heat in his home country through import sales. There’s no culture shock to his work – the things he’s taking from are things you’re familiar with – so he really has a chance to blow up with the indie pop crowd. Hopefully, with Port Entropy, Tokumaru will finally get his due.
by Danny Djeljosevic