Our top picks this week - featuring lush Japanese ambience from Meitei, jazzy beatwork from Wovensound, and an edgy pop bop from J.M3!
Kofu / KITCHEN LABEL
Meitei’s tracks are sonic rituals of historical reverence. In his quest to rediscover and reinterpret lost Japanese moods, the Hiroshima ambient producer’s discography has conjured a distinctive aural world draped in ukiyo-e-like yugen – from Kwaidan’s (Evening Chants) studies of folkloric haunts, to Komachi’s (Metron Records) serene, arcane nightscapes. On Kofū, the finale to his trilogy released on established Singaporean outpost Kitchen Label, he expands his scope, attempting to craft a satire of Japanese aesthetics as a whole. Yet by subverting his own techniques and methods, Meitei manages to create his best work yet – a poignant work of art that invokes faded memories surprisingly through a surreal recreation of Japanese past.
Of the album’s 13 tracks, Sadayakko is one of Kofu’s centrepieces, embodying its most strikingly different quality compared to his past work. Named after famed pre-war theatre actress Kawakami Sadayakko, the track vividly reimagines the circumstances that surrounded her life and career. Like an ecstatic dance sequence, the track prances along at a jaunt-like pace, accelerating while alternating between spliced string samples and playful bass. As the track progresses, the story is told by two voices that shuffle between one another – “Japanese people,” a man’s voice constantly repeats in English, reflecting the Western admiration (and near-fetishization) for Japanese arts and culture during the period. Yet, the track only replies once in Japanese – ”o-machidosama,” a subservient expression. As an actress, the playful nature of the track reflects the performative appeal of her work and persona– yet under a distorted patriarchal lens, her true self is ultimately a misunderstood one.
Sadayakko stands alongside three other tracks that are dedicated towards forgotten female lives. Nyobo aims to present the toils of working-class women, while two tracks are dedicated to Oiran, the names given to courtesans that worked within Edo’s red-light districts. Sadayakko is the most poignant of the four, but all of them serve as departures from Meitei’s previously meditative approaches. By employing techniques belonging to the hip-hop vernacular – J-Dilla-esque sample splicing and subtle, yet propulsive rhythms crafted with manipulated metallic timbres – these tracks stand out from the tracklist. It’s unfamiliar territory for Meitei, but its sense of activity gives room for the other tracks’ tenderness to thrive.
With this newfound vibrancy and the context set by these past characters, Kofu’s meditative moments become even more powerful. When given context, these moments – from the haunting grace accompanying Urameshi-ya’s reverberating pianos, to the cinematic darkness of “Shonen” – feel like reveries from lost times. But perhaps the most emotionally affecting of all is Gen’ei (Illusion). Amidst his glass-like soundscapes, one word slips through the cracks – “demo,” (but). Through the lens of the fractured, whispered sample, a sense of hesitancy emanates from the woman’s voice, and situated within a cultural landscape of smoke and mirrors, her voice feels painfully genuine. Like Sadayakko, Kofu’s women lived a fragile balancing act between the performative and painful, carefully surviving tatemae and honne as they navigated imposingly patriarchal social structures and difficult working conditions. Through his juxtapositions in genre, Meitei uses Kofu’s tracks as metaphor for the duality that lay behind Japanese society of old, and even persists today at its core. Just like the multitude of voices that ‘Sadayakko’ contains, this duality persists throughout the album, and becomes the album’s central thesis.
Translated literally, Kofu translates as ‘in the style of the ancient’. In interviews, Meitei has stated his anger on how Japanese music has become more akin to ‘Tokyo music’ – losing sight of Japan’s original sceneries and cultural touchpoints. Yet ironically, despite Kofu being the most overtly and specifically Japanese in subject matter, it is the most un-Japanese in its presentation, employing a foreign, hip-hop-like sensibility in stark contrast to its mission. But by highlighting these lost voices of the past through modern techniques, Kofu’s reimagined fragments of the past become less of impressionistic nostalgia, and more snippets of universal human experiences trapped within a liminal space, unhindered by time.
For Kofu’s stories, Meitei’s choice to sample external sound sources emotionally affected him to the point of tears – as listeners, the samples allow us to relate to these faded memories, making them all the more emotionally poignant. As these past Japanese lives are forgotten like Sadayakko’s, Meitei’s reimagined past becomes less about specifics, but emotional windows into the spirits of painfully human stories that once were. If the past is to never return, Meitei reminds us that the least we can do is to remember their soul.
Listen to "Sadayakko" here:
- - by JX Soo
Wovensound (feat. Ihasamic!, SHAK, Raina Sum, & Andrew Marko)
Vertigos Fulfilled / Umami Records
Wovensound is the unexpected hip-hop and beatmaking project of Vinod Dass, birthed during the circuit breaker quarantine earlier this year. Although best known as the guitarist for metal bands such as Mucus Mortuary, Dass flexes his chops on Sickleberry Sunsets as a producer, proving his skills in a tasteful tribute to sounds pioneered by famed beatsmiths Nujabes and J Dilla. The track is a crowded one, featuring Ihasamic!, SHAK, Raina Sum, and Andrew Marko – but they all somehow come together in a way where none of the artists feel like they outstay their welcome. Featuring an impressively genuine reverence to its lo-fi influences, the alchemy between its jazzy samples and beats makes Sickleberry Sunsets feel truly alive, with an organic quality that radiates through its alternating hi-hat patterns, snares, and claps.
The track’s lyrics seem to be an exploration of the dichotomy between optimism and pragmatism, with each artist pivoting the track towards their own unique lenses and varied perspectives on every turn. SHAK’s soulful voice reverberates on the chorus in an assured acceptance of how things are, beckoning the listener to join him in seeing the beauty in a life that just is. (“Ride slow to this music it’s music to my ears/ Will not refute it/ I’m jumping cities on the backseats of reality/ Come see the sunset with me”).
The first verse that follows by Ihasamic! is then a clever delve into the complicated process of having faith in the process, (“Trust it/ The process as gruelling as it is rewarding/ The excess piled over one another overcrowding“) or a higher power (“Change plant change/ Call whatever for rain call for cease fires call me up/ And call for daddies in the sky”). Ending on an open-ended note, the verse never quite reveals if Ihasamic!’s faith was actually rewarded, which ironically manages to challenge the listener to have enough faith to form their own conclusions. Finally, Raina Sum’s pre-choruses powerfully grapple with the ideas of existentialism and death in a relatable, succinct, refrain. (“I’m not ready to go/ Yet I’ve so much to accomplish/ What will I amount to, I see no future”) It’s simple, yet elegantly relatable, perfect for leading into SHAK’s chorus sections.
Andrew Marko takes the reins on the track’s last verse, with an effortlessly rhythmic flow and cadence. Marko raps of the conflict between practicing restraint and taking action (“But I’m standing here just caught up in a chokehold./ You can’t be shouting/ You can’t be silent/ But mama always said to choose/ Love over violence”). Yet, he isn’t afraid of sprinkling a cheeky line or two at the beginning of the song. (“Peekin’ as I’m passing through the clouds,/ I wanna take a leak and let the world just have a peak”)
Towards the end of Sickleberry Sunsets, Dass introduces a beautiful tribute to Nujabes in the form of a horn solo. This leaves room for some introspection on the part of the listener, before SHAK quietly closes the track, pouring his heart out softly on the chorus one last time. Wovensound is an underrated project, and Sickleberry Sunsets is a strong testament to Dass’ dense competency and creativity as a musician, producer, and songwriter. Sickleberry Sunsets is the lead single off Wovensound’s upcoming debut EP Vertigos Fulfilled, which is due in mid 2021 – a project definitely worth looking out for.
Listen to “Sickleberry Sunsets” here:
- - by Isaac Yackem
J.M3’s Beautiful Monsters is dark alt-pop that, frankly, sounds like trailer music for an edgy superhero movie (à la Suicide Squad). Nevertheless, it is one of the more memorable and enjoyable pop tracks to come out of Singapore in recent memory, with its sparse keys and snares tastefully complementing its chopped and pitch-shifted vocal samples. Combined with driving bass pads, the track builds up and races to the finish line, and thankfully, its production is tastefully minimalistic for the most part, which allows for its small embellishments to stand out a little more. Lyrically, however, Beautiful Monsters isn’t the strongest. Despite supposedly exploring themes of facades and inward self-acceptance, it does sometimes feel like J.M3 falls flat of the Melanie Martinez-esque vibe she seems to be steering the track towards (“It's a playground, call Pandora/ Who's afraid now, there's the door ya/ Wanna find out, the real me/ Masquerade ball, who's it for ya”). All in all, Beautiful Monsters stands on the better side when it comes to Singaporean pop singles as of late, but it only seems to be a stepping stone for J.M3, as she continues to refine her sound.
Listen to "Beautiful Monsters" here:
- - by Isaac Yackem