I've never really been into shoegaze. I'm one of those people who thinks that if you've heard one shoegaze band (or even just one shoegaze song), you've heard them all. Maybe all that droning doesn't get boring for you, but I think that most of the time, noisy droning should be relegated to two or three songs on an album. Up and coming New York band Asobi Seksu ("play sex" in Japanese) is very much a shoegazer act. The words "My Bloody Valentine" often come up in the bio and press excerpts on their website, and they indeed have that characteristic droning sound.
But I love this debut album.
You see, Asobi Seksu isn't just your generic My Bloody Valentine or Ride wannabe. They've got one advantage that trumps all the other shoegazer bands out there. And that advantage is Yuki.
Yuki, who only goes by her first name, is their lead singer. Yuki has a beautiful, powerful voice, and she's bilingual. She flawlessly switches between singing Japanese lyrics in one song and English in the next. Personally, vocals can make or break a band for me. Bad vocals can derail good music, while good vocals are able to carry mediocre music (music makes a lot of difference for me, too, so I'd say that only in rare cases can good vocals totally compensate for bad music). Yuki is the main reason why this band has crossed over from the shoegazer scene and into my heart.
I wouldn't say that Yuki is all they have going for them. I do like the music and think it's above average for a shoegazer band. Their songs actually don't all sound the same to me, and they know when to be soft and when to punch in the distortion and get loud for maximum emotional effect. They have that pop sensibility that makes their music more accessible than that of their peers.
Really, the only problem with this album is that the music isn't too original. The mellower, less shoegazer-ish songs sound like Luna. In fact, their male vocalist, James Hanna, is a Dean Wareham soundalike. I don't care, though, because Dean has a cool voice. But really, the most blatant rip-off is the first track, "I'm Happy But You Don't Like Me," which sounds a lot like Ceremony by Joy Division with Ian Curtis' vocal track replaced by Yuki singing in Japanese. I forgive them for it because they kick in with some distorted guitar late in the song, which Joy Division would never have utilized, and also because Yuki's vocals are so good, but some people might take issue with that. Oh, and there's also this short track called "Asobi Masho," featuring guitar scratching and noise that sounds like it was lifted from Sonic Youth's Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star. However, I love it because having Sonic Youth-style distortion in your pop music is a good thing, and because Yuki on that track, too. Yes, it's one of those records where you can pick a track and name the band that it sounds like. Still, I like it because the influences are good, they flawlessly play and sing everything with much passion and emotion, and Yuki just rules. Whatever they lack in originality, they more than make up for it with everything else about their music.
So, what you basically have here is a shoegazer pop album that sounds mostly like a cross between My Bloody Valentine, Luna, and a Japanese twee pop record, with vague and ambiguous lyrics about love and longing, delicate and beautiful one minute, and loud and soaring the next. Pick this one up if you're a shoegazer fan, if you're a twee or all-around indie pop fan, if you think indie rock hit its peak in the early '90s and hasn't come close since, or if you're an otaku and have acquired a taste for female Japanese singing from all those anime soundtracks. If you're in one of those categories, I don't think you'll be disappointed.