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Shugo Tokumaru - Exit

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Artist: Shugo Tokumaru

Album: Exit

Label: Star Time

Review date: Oct. 30, 2008

Exit is part of an evolutionary leap that has been taking place in independent music for a while now. This isn’t meant to be a bit of marketing hyperbole either, to be emblazoned as a blurb on some future piece of publicity, but rather to be taken literally, as Shugo Tokumaru is on the edge of a possible dialectical shift in the general methodology behind much of the indie pop world. As the semi-standard simple pop strategy begins to wear itself out, giving way to a retread of orchestral and psyche-pop arrangements, the sublation of the two creates a new way. While experimental pop is nothing new, the conditions for its emergence are, and Exit is both a great example and a wonderful album in its own right. What this means exactly though needs a bit of explication.

To really grasp Tokumaru and his music is to understand the conditions that allow him to appear on the scene. What I mean by this is that whenever an artist comes into the public eye – and though he’s been making music for years now and this is his third album, Exit is really his first widely-available Western release – there’s always talk of influences and people they’ve played music with, and so on. These things can be important, but most often just frame the artist into an easy causal picture. “Oh, Tokumaru listened to the Beach Boys when he was young? Well, that explains everything. Case closed.” But that’s often a smokescreen, which is used so that the difficulties of really understanding a musician can be ignored. What are more important are the musical possibilities that the culture allows to be open. Thus, for Tokumaru, it’s not who he listened to that will give meaning to Exit. Rather it’s the historical moment he’s making music in and why it allows this kind of pop music to be created.

As the linear picture only gives a limited explanation at best – X influenced Y – a better or more complete way to look at this is through the multiple and contradictory interactions between musician and the world around them – the dialectics of the situation. And as dialectics are fundamentally about examining the way contradictory interactions unfold, understanding the contradictions within indie pop will help set the scene for Tokumaru’s emergence. On one hand, there is some strategy to making music. Some real people with real lives sit in their homes, or in a studio, and record music. They have musicians and artists that they like. They are perhaps part of a scene in the city they live in. They read and love and have families, etc. All this stuff contributes to the music they make. It is a practice, a practical concern. And then there is the way we, in our attempts to understand music, classify it, shunting it into one category or another. This is indie pop. This is indie rock. This is mainstream pop. These are mostly social distinctions, especially, since as one can see, many people who play indie rock are in fact on a major label. Understanding and practice are engaged in a dialectic with each other. People create and try to understand those creations, then react to that understanding, and on, and on, and on.

Indie pop itself has always been subject to a rather glaring contradiction, especially at the twee end of the scale. Twee, or at least modern American twee, has as its central concern a rather simplified, sometimes even puerile, vision of the human condition. For the most part, this simplification is mirrored in the music itself. This is fine for the most part, but the way twee – and, in many cases, indie pop as a broader umbrella term – operates is at odds with both the musicians making the music and the world around those musicians. For one, many of the musicians creating this kind of music are much, much older than their narrative personas. This itself creates a strange schism within the music. Perhaps this merely appeals to a segment of the population that is relatively well off and can leisurely pursue their teenage fantasies with ease, but for most people the un-nuanced, bland fumbling of adolescence is an anachronism. Add to this the contradiction between that simplicity and the complexity of a real relationship or the complexity of real people living their lives, and that grating dissonance grows. As those contradictions play out, the general strategy, as it’s been emerging, has been to create more complexity. One of the better tactics has been the marriage of pop and modern composition.

With Exit, I think a number of things are illustrative of this. While there is a preservation of song form (especially the pop form) and melody, a lot has been negated, especially the simplicity that the pop form implies. While his songs progress in a fairly standard way, there is such a rich, diverse variation within each moment. Interplay that suggests minimalism creates a robustness; each section, each verse or chorus contains within it levels upon levels of melody that interact with each other. The songs have this delightful ability to be easily grasped by their form, but to be elusive and slippery with their content.

By Andrew Beckerman

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