ongratulations to Taylor Deupree for coming up with perhaps the most inspired label name since Mille Plateaux. Deupree created Happy to be a showcase for alternative Japanese pop music. As anyone who has heard Cibo Matto or Pizzicato Five or any of the other Japanese music exports will know, Japanese pop is nothing if not sublimely optimistic, exuberant, and, well, happy. Piana's Snow Bird, Happy's first release, is no exception. But the happiness on Snow Bird isn't anything like the childish "I love chicken" or "I want to dance forever" happiness of other Japanese acts. This is adolescent happiness: a happiness that must be earned through reflection, understanding, and compromise. This is a challenging work, and, on this first US release, Naoko Sasaki (aka Piana) proves to be anything but simple-minded.
Let me begin with the voice. I haven't heard a voice like hers in a long time—at least, not since I first heard the main character of Hayao Miyazaki's Whisper of the Heart sing (in Japanese) John Denver's "Take Me Home Country Roads." I wouldn't call the voice childish, but it a child-like voice. Not only is it high and squeaky, but it's also fresh, innocent, and completely stripped of pretension. I say this even though she's singing in Japanese (the liner notes on the album are in Japanese, too, though you can find translations on the Happy web site). Borrowing from Roland Barthes, I would argue that the "grain" of her voice reveals a plaintive honesty that allows me to accept her at face (or tone) value, regardless of the language barrier.
Sasaki's simple, honest voice is crucial here because her music is extremely complicated. There are crazy rhythms, backwards melodies, bleeps and blips, and other assorted weird noises sprinkled throughout these eleven songs. Even when relatively straightforward instrumentation is employed (the keyboards and guitar on "Butterfly" and "Winter Sleep," for example), these simple sounds are inevitably layered in a wall of digital atmospherics.
Are these extra layers of sound absolutely necessary? It's hard to say. The music does seem a bit derivative of Morr Music artists like Lali Puna or Styrofoam (or even Deupree's own 12k label). So the music isn't really original, but does that matter? After all, pop music (or, at least, this pop music) is about communicating emotions to listeners, not challenging sonic conventions. How effective is Snow Bird at doing this? For the most part, it's very effective. I can't go through a single song here without experiencing a glimpse into this young woman's delicate, beautiful heart. However, I also cannot go through a single song without having that glimpse dissolve in a wash of digital effects.
Pop music is a delicate thing; add too much of one part, and the whole thing goes bad. Snow Bird works when the vocals are in control and the music accentuates the emotional power of the vocals. The album falters whenever this balance is out of order, when the digital weirdness overwhelms either the singing or the songs themselves. So it's not perfect. So what? This is Sasaki's debut album, and for a debut, it's pretty damn impressive. I look forward to hearing more from this interesting, gifted artist.
Reviewed by: Michael Heumann
Reviewed on: 2003-12-05