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Piana - Snow Bird

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Artist: Piana

Album: Snow Bird

Label: Happy

Review date: Dec. 8, 2003

Piana, from Morioka, Japan, is actually Naoko Sasaki, with guitar contributions by Yuichiro Iwashita. Piana's music would probably be termed 'glitchpop' these days, for what that sort of labeling is worth, but suffice it to say that if you took dreamy J-Pop and put it through a stereo with badly-corroded wiring, it might come out the speakers resembling something like this.

After an oddly antiquated-sounding thirty-second opener of piano and crunchy digital sounds, "Butterfly" serves as an example of Naoko's approach: To a bedding of gently floating electronic tones, add delicate guitar picking. Naoko's high, girlish vocals are clear, clean, and pretty. Take the recording of those sounds, overlay it with synthetic chirps and blips, and then chop it digitally so as to add static, microsecond-long awkward gaps in the sounds, and other artificial artifacts.

What's most interesting to me regarding this approach - not just Piana's, but that of other groups blending electronics and traditional pop songwriting - is that the artists often try to have it both ways. By taking the pop song structures and adding artificial glitches and digital manipulations, they're bringing that manipulation to the forefront and risking it becoming the focus of the songs. At the same time, by smearing these noises across clean digital recordings, they often seem to be trying to take away some of the synthetic sheen and "dirty up" the music to make it less artificial.

The obvious risk from both sides is exactly that artificiality. Just because digital recording lets you do something doesn't mean that it's always the right thing to do. Making the glitches such an integral part of the recordings makes them a focus of the songs. If they don't serve the song, then they're in the way.

To Piana's credit, the manipulations often don't call attention to themselves. In "Snow Bird”, for example, the sound effects are mainly cute and clever, and add to the dreaminess of the song. Likewise, "Voice" is a slow, eerie song with Naoko's singsong, childlike vocals over very minimal synthetic textures and acoustic guitar. Occasional bumps and clanks and random bursts of quiet static add to the atmosphere, until halfway through the song becomes a more normal tune, still dreamy and pretty.

Initially, the glitches adorning "Spring Has Come!!!" are distracting, and the song seems to be all chittering static and digital murkiness. Later, however, the layers of sound, like a digital blanket, actually become quite beautiful, almost like a digital recreation of shoegazer textures. "Winter Sleep" reminds me, oddly, of Radiohead's forays into electronic pop constructions, though it's ultimately not one of the most memorable songs here. Similarly, "Monster”, a pop song that gets derailed by vaguely drum-and-bass clattering rhythms and dissected synth blips, doesn't stick with me, and seems slightly out of place amidst the other, much slower, songs on the album.

"April" is a very quiet, dreamy, floating construction that benefits from being left alone. The humming electronic tones that serve as bedding provide a haunting foundation for the sparse guitar notes and distant-sounding vocals. "Blue Bell" is the longest song here at six minutes, and is a bonus track added for this edition outside Japan. It's a very pretty song, with organ, crackling vinyl-like sounds, slow picked guitar notes and breathy, wispy vocals. However, it honestly would be even nicer without the unnecessary glitches thrown in. This is a good example of not being content with what you have, and doing something simply because you can. I'm not sure why one would think that sounds added to make the song sound like an old, weathered LP were a good idea.

On the whole, despite my crotchety complaints, restraint is exercised on most of the songs here, and the results are pretty rewarding. Even more restraint would let the inherent beauty of the songs show through without marring them with random noises, while making use of the tools to really enhance. There's no doubt that Piana, and other artists plying these waters, are finding a valuable synthesis of pop and digitalia, wherein their tools allow creation and manipulation of sounds heretofore not possible, and that's to be applauded. As in any pioneering, time and practice are needed to hone the skills and vision, and it's once that's had time to occur that we'll start seeing the true results. In the meantime, however, we can certainly be happy with enjoyable, if imperfect, songs like these.

By Mason Jones

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