Brooklyn-based Asobi Seksu (“Sex for play” in English) comes across as a Quentin Tarantino
wet dream at first glance. The first thing you’ll notice is the hyperstylized and club-chic packaging of the band, as trendy as a handbill for an underground party in Shibuya. Next, you’ll notice photogenic focal point, Yuki Chikudate, who gazes from her pictures with a cool sex appeal and a generous dollop of irony. You might be forgiven for assuming this is another cooler-than-thou New York club band, heavy on the style, and light on the substance. You might expect some post-ironic Shibuya-kei club music. You might expect some J-Pop sleekness.
What you get is none of the above.
Me, I wasn’t sure what to expect when I hit play, and the 17-second whirr of electronic noise that opens the disc “Everything Is On” offered little in the way of hints. The first full-length track, “Strawberries” kicks in, and its allure becomes obvious right away; an ambitious cross between My Bloody Valentine and Cocteau Twins, with a little jangle pop thrown into a lo-fi mix. Yuki’s vocals, which are mostly indecipherable and switch from English to Japanese and back throughout the disc, shimmer in the echoed tradition of the Cocteau Twins.
Guitarist James Hanna builds up a reverbed, overdubbed, swirling wall-of-sound that will keep any shoegaze fan happy. “New Year” is a noisy frolic; “Thursday” opts for a grandiose sound and wispy, sighing vocal. “Strings” opens on a spare note, with emphasis on bass and drums and a woozy, windswept sounding guitar, and very filtered gossamer vocals that build into little mini-crescendos, and a tremendous psychedelic feedback-drenched final climax accompanied by tribal drumming and a shimmering mix of echoed and layered raga-rock guitar and circular keyboards.
Which comes as a great relief midway through the disc. Like their shoegaze cousins, Asobi Seksu delivers plenty of texture, and little in the way of emotional or sonic catharsis. Which is ultimately what starts nagging as “Pink Cloud Tracing Paper” (featuring a solid but undistinguished lead vocal from Hanna) shimmies by. A certain saminess begins to settle in; Yuki’s vocals begin to sound predictable on “Red Sea”; the layers of white noise never seem to break new ground, and the best moments of the music is fragmentary; the dense cacophonic drone that closes the track (which clocks in at 7:45) does do great things to the central nervous system, but the road that leads there is bland. “Goodbye” hangs on a winning surf-inspired twangy guitar, and Yuki is miked closer; the chorus comes closest to a catchy hook as the album gets. “Lions and Tigers” has single written all over it and comes the closest to setting itself apart from the murk, but even there, the surprises aren’t really anything new.
“Nefi + Girly” rides a giant riffing guitar intro, and benefits from its bizarre tempo shifts, and uptempo forward momentum. “Exotic Animal Paradise” is a slow dreamy one, with nice harmonizing between Yuki and Hanna.Featuring off-kilter toy piano and lush, soft production, it almost recalls Julee Cruise’s somnambulent work of the 90’s. The closer, “Mizu Asobi” kicks up the tempo considerably and offers up Yuki’s most playful chorus.
Which gets me to my second realization. This is “Asobi” without the “Seksu”. It’s “play” without the “sex”. There’s nothing very seductive here, nothing smouldering, nothing slinky club-sexy as one might expect. Hanna’s layered textures are admirable, meaty, dense. Yuki waxes girly, silly, dreamy, mock-earnest, but never seductive. Bassist Haji and drummer Mitch Spivak, who replace the original rhythm section on this sophomore album, do their jobs well; the bass is taut and propulsive, the drums crash and bash and do everything except keep strict time. The songs bend and morph. There are not-so-subtle hints of irony. It’s all for fun, just play here. Long neglected shoegaze fans, who have starved since the mid-90’s, and aging champions of My Bloody Valentine, Ride, and Moose can take heart in a well-executed 2006 shoegaze album.
But those fooled by the cover and names, who came in looking for a sleeker, sexier Pizzicato Five are going to be disappointed.
And everyone else may have a hard time recalling much beyond “Strawberries” and the drone of “Red Sea”
The verdict: Good shoegaze, a little samey. But no sex…