Returning to Editions Mego for this, her first solo release since
2008's "Trust", Tujiko Noriko has created something that initially
sounds, looks and feels like a pop record, but turns out to be an avant garde labradoodle
in pop sheep's clothing.
"My Heart isn't Only Mine", a long piece of over 14 minutes, took me out of my room, and I felt as though I had arrived at a concert at a Punkt Festival I couldn't remember. Anyone who knows me knows that this is a good thing: an exceptionally good thing. Noriko sings in both English and Japanese, but here, she sings in Japanese. There is an ambient quality at first, Noriko's voice swimming amid notes of silver and gold, shoaling back and forth. However, this quality slides gracefully into a different feeling altogether with the arrival of various acoustic instruments, and most particularly, the organ that plays a motif with variations. The piece builds and ebbs, Noriko's voice coming back and forth within the mix, sometimes slightly filtered and in a larger space, sometimes up-close and personal. While it might be easy to call this "chilled out", it carries with it a tension, a whisper of something uncertain, something akin to yearning and loss. It is a hauntingly winsome piece with layers that run deep into a darkness. Of course, the lyrics might contradict this, but I can't speak for or against this: I'm assessing purely on the basis of sound.
The subsequent tracks have a greater debt to the pop-crossover concept. "Land Next To Me" is a luscious song, and if "pop music" as we generally understand it, this is highly evolved pop music indeed. No enslavement to tropes and clichés are on display. Although it is straightforward to hear why Noriko has been compared to Icelandic artists Múm and Björk (among others), she has a distinctly different core to her creations. There is a natural warmth present, one that is surrounded by moments of heat or coolness (never overly intense), whereas the Icelandic counterparts reverse this (i.e. coolness surrounded by warmth). If musical comparison between one artist and another is a requirement (I don't really believe it is, myself, but some people like this kind of handle on things), I actually find more connection (and this is probably just me, so make of that what you will) between Noriko's approach and that of Hugo Largo (their track "Ohio", for example). However, the density of instrumentation, and the breadth of electronic elements separates the two artists into different sound worlds.
This pop simplicity (which really doesn't convey the correct vibe for this music) continues with "Give me Your Hands" and "Minty You" (the latter charged nicely with a will to have each line sneak up on the listener in plain sight, almost tip-toeing in a pantomime-like way – a touch whimsical, and utterly endearing).
"Through the Rain" has a repetitive nature, but only as a backbone – the instrumentation and arrangement hops around, with an improvised feeling to it, the mandolin trills never really repeating themselves. Only the piano chords – dat-dat-dah dat –ta-dat-dat-dah – remain in a uniform pattern throughout. The vocals are complex and drifting in, above, and through each other.
"12 Moons" takes shambling steps, almost like a child learning to walk, and has an almost nursery song quality to it. The melody is very simple, yet the music remains largely unpredictable. Straightforward loops or repeated phrasing are eschewed in favour of a more spontaneous quality, and when they do appear, they become features of interest rather than some part of a barely noticeable underbelly.
"Under the White Sheets", the title of which recalls the ghosts of the title, is another piece of startling simplicity, seeming highly structured, yet feeling as though it was being created on-the-fly. "Yellow of You", by contrast feels altogether more tangible, despite the ghostly singing of a musical saw. It has an epic quality to it, but – if such a thing were possible – it is an epic intimacy. It winds and coils to a crescendo over the course of its 6 minutes, and ends sparsely, slightly discordant, with treated vocals almost sounding like synths.
"My Ghost Comes Back" begins like a voice accompanied by the ghost of itself steadily building from a state of near-total decay. The hints of synth that blearily slip into view steadily assert themselves, but never particularly boldly, just enough to let you know they're there, before slipping out again. However, the arrival of the bass is altogether much more imposing. The drums keep their distance, yet seem all the more present. Mandolin, and various other instruments, blend and disappear into vocal melodies, and vice versa. Only the lead voice remains in its place until halfway when it reduces to a filtered echoing whisper that comes closer in the mix. When the beat returns, it is a mixture of shock and jubilation. There is a celebratory quality, a sense of some kind of elation.
"My Ghost Comes Back" is a marvellous album, and much like her previous outings, takes pop in hand, reshaping it, distorting it. Nothing suggests standard "J-Pop", yet it's in there, its genes rearranged and spliced with experimental fervour and wilful disregard of normative production values. Her voice becomes an instrument, but often is set back from being the lead instrument to take equal billing with the other instruments that populate the music. Ideas emerge in rapid succession, and are given space to play, often overlapping each other, never sitting still. Noriko's music never seems to be about Noriko as much as it seems to be reflexive, a sound world that describes itself and (re)produces itself endlessly. It is an album that increases its rewards with each listen, and seemingly could do so indefinitely. The arrangements of disparate elements that make up these songs are deceptively rich. They are laden with clever layers that initially seem straightforward, but gradually reveal themselves to be almost in line with free jazz rather than regimentally scored pop music. It is as close to the Holy Grail (in my view) of experimental music as I have heard in a while: the experimental that remains listenable, actually enjoyable. This is why I described it as "an avant garde labradoodle in pop sheep's clothing" rather than a wolf: It is avant garde music that invites rather than force you to think. It is hard not to accept such an eloquent invitation.