he Japanese laptop musician, singer, and offbeat sex symbol Tujiko Noriko is often compared to a certain other female electronic pop artist, but Tujiko doesn’t have as much in common with Björk as critics might have you believe. Both women straddle the electronic, experimental, and pop music idioms; both sing a proper melody over their po-mo arrangements. But beyond that, the Icelandic lap-pop diva is just a convenient name-drop. The dark, dirty truth is that both have the appeal of the Other; their worlds of cute voices, static, short-shorts, and swan dresses seize the braintrust of (mostly) white, (mostly) male music critics who all simultaneously idolize and (as the adage goes) look a little too much like Bryan Ferry.
Do these girls share only a colonialist fetish appeal? No. But Noriko’s wonderful new album Solo highlights an important distinction between the two that short-circuits her image as “the Japanese Björk.” Her patchwork arrangements are composed with trip-hop adolescence; her simple, melodic vocals contrast the maximalist approaches of other glitch-pop musicians. It’s surprising to find that she has changed her own approach very little over the years.
Tujiko’s contemporaries often marry themselves to album-based concepts—reference Björk’s releases or Jimmy Tamborello’s many projects—that reflect their stylistic or technological infatuations at the time. Electronic music is constructed differently now than it was even six years ago. But while Tujiko has been wildly prolific in those six years (six full-lengths, multiple collaborations, and a budding career in directing short film), she’s also walked the fine line between conceptual unity and stagnation. 2005’s Blurred in my Mirror was a dramatic breath of relief simply because its harsher, less song-centered structure departed from her previous work. With Solo, she returns to the aesthetic of previous albums Shojo Toshi, Make Me Hard, and From Tokyo to Naiagara.
Tujiko whispers playful melodies almost completely in Japanese against an electronic landscape that often sounds alien, but never announces itself as unnatural. Sludgy beats lurch the album forward, while synths and glitches envelop her voice without ever overwhelming it. Static is looped, processed, and transformed into instrumental flourishes just as naturally as if she had been playing the flute or strumming the guitar. Her songs are pop, but more than that, they’re also multi-dimensional sound sculptures, revealing new complexities at every angle of observation. Solo finds her near the top of her game with the most immediately rewarding group of melodies and vocal performances she’s ever released. Tujiko is by her very nature a background listen, but Solo’s striking vocals claw their way to full consciousness, tumbling out of controlled dreams into waking life.
Perhaps Tujiko’s unwavering dedication to exploring her narrow aesthetic slowly and deliberately has become her greatest defining characteristic. Yes, by all standards, there isn’t much difference between the songs of Solo and those of Shojo Toshi. She’s embroiled in her own little form of rockism, except that her “Golden Age” seems to be tween-pop from the 24th century—a style that the indie electro-crit boys will always lust after. Eschewing her contemporaries’ ideas of concept albums as high-minded marriage to product, Tujiko has instead embraced her own concept career.