n this series, clicks’n’cuts dilettante Francis Henville describes his descent into the netherworld of Japanese, Taiwanese and Korean commercial pop. Track by track, he navigates deeper into the genre, searching for ever-more-toothsome morsels with which to satiate his jaded appetite…
Back Together Again
Back when I was an English teacher, I found out that one of my junior high school students had a buddy that downloaded lotsa J-pop. So on a whim I said to the kid, “You bring me a MiniDisc of some music you like and I’ll trade it to you for one with music I like on it.” I gave him an MD with Farben and Pole on it, but that just confused him. He gave me an album by Chemistry, and although I didn’t listen to it much at first, I soon fell in love with it.
I still remember walking on an impossibly thin road between rice paddies and listening to that MD for the second or third time. The February sun was bright between thin clouds, but the sky amazingly began to snow huge slow dreamy snowflakes down on me. That weather combination has always seemed surreal to me, the memory becoming just as encoded on that MD as the musical ones and zeroes.
J-pop is an umbrella term, and has more to do with geography than with genre. But one of the most distinctive styles employed by the biggest stars is R’n’B. I strongly believe the designation “R’n’B” means something very different in Japan, and that a genre borrowed from North America has now undergone important mutations. But the most important point to remember: Japanese R’n’B is, more often than not, approached and structured like a ballad in disguise. This track, from that same fateful MD, is sung by male duo Chemistry, and is a typical example of the distinctive Japanese spin on R’n’B.
This track’s production style is laid back, beginning with telephone-guitars and stereo trickery. Later, strings, conventionally programmed drums and scratchy vinyl sounds appear. The most interesting aspect is the latter, which serves (counter to its normal function) to highlight the artificiality of the production.
But that very artificiality is what I love about this song. Everything is built too perfectly and the track has a glossy digestibility—each ingredient is selected with the most mainstream audience in mind. It’s deliciously rich without being cloying. This is thrown into relief by the two- and four-part harmonies that the two boys in Chemistry have overdubbed.
The lead vocalist’s voice is the same colour as an aged cello. He can leap from a tenor to a falsetto without sounding childish. It’s an adorably masculine sound—honest, chesty, non-threatening, which goes towards featuring a roundness and resonance to vowels that few voices have. The lead is supported by harmonies that are processed in unsurprising but perfectly appropriate ways—the track isn’t over-autotuned like Britney or Cher’s work.
Perhaps that’s a starting point for analyzing Japanese R’n’B—exquisitely artificial music as a backdrop for purely human vocal work.
A quick flip-through of Chemistry’s other work might lead to an unfair dismissal as assembly-line imitation of Western forms. Certainly, when Chemistry try to pull off UK garage, as on their track “Running Away”, there’s a rawness that’s noticeably absent. But commercial Japanese producers have been refining their unique take on R’n’B for years now, tailoring it exquisitely to the national palate. Roll this track around on your tongue for a while—it will not disappoint.
By: Francis Henville
Published on: 2004-07-22