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Yura Yura Teikoku - Hollow Me/Beautiful

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Artist: Yura Yura Teikoku

Album: Hollow Me/Beautiful

Label: DFA

Review date: Jan. 29, 2010


Yura Yura Teikoku - "Dekinai" (Hollow Me/Beautiful)


We don’t have an American counterpart to Japan’s Yura Yura Teikoku, because rock & roll started with us. We’re not necessarily in the habit of generating bands that can wild out the last 30-40 years of popular music, because we have enough bands in our historical timeline that have done so independently. For that matter, Japan has more than enough of every kind of rock and pop band imaginable. So maybe the argument I was making doesn’t make any sense, and if you saw the Yura Yura Teikoku set I attended at Tonic back in 2006, you’d probably stop trying to throw generalizations around either, because that was bar-none one of the best live rock shows I’ve seen in my life. The band raced through Kinks-style garage pop into more introspective balladry, a lengthy rave-up that verged on the sort of chaotic catharsis that Sonic Youth was in the habit of creating in the ‘90s, then a steamroller of classic hard rock and noise to finish off the night. These guys barely broke a sweat, consummate performers with immaculate tone and unbridled energy. It was difficult to take in all at once, but at no point in nearly two hours of playing did my attention or my enthusiasm waver.

I saw them again, and the energy was there, but there was not much left to prove. Guitarist Shintaro Sakamoto dressed in a red jumpsuit and flung himself into the mic stand and all over the stage. Bassist Chiyo Kamekawa and drummer Ichiro Shibata restrained themselves; all the sounds were there, but this was a different vibe, one that was more difficult to parse. Sure enough, this was new material, off their unheralded (and unheard) DFA debut, and it was not the kind of music designed to make a quick first impression, other than the dance pedigree expected from such an association. The label speaks of certain dogmas the trio embraced before writing and recording this material, but never makes mention of what they might be. The title and track listing offers some clues: hollow, forest, listless, dream, tender, ashamed...

Part of the enjoyment here is trying to figure out where these guys want to position themselves: soft rock, post-rock, Krautrock, and the blues all make showings here, often in the company of one another. The reverbed guitar lead at the beginning of Creedence’s “Born on the Bayou” is certainly a touchstone on this work, and like that song, the reverb is used here both to distort the melody and provide a focus for the rhythm of the songs. Used in their “Beautiful (Album Version),” intertwined with a simple, unswerving drum track, and some foundational bass guitar, the vocals swing gently around this jungle gym, chiming in with a bored-sounding Japanese syllable every four beats. It’s a minimal and impressive feat, danceable without ever really leaning into any of the qualities that we know most dance music to exist on. When that same guitar line becomes part of the framework for the following track “In the Forest,” wrapped tightly in demon fuzz, careening bursts of string and wind instruments, and a playful 3/4 beat, the group’s new-found economy truly shows itself. Distortion is used sparingly; bombast, hardly at all. These are pop songs with a backbone both danceable and sensible, two elements that aren’t always as synergistic as exhibited here.

The dual title tracks cover both the mantra and the jingle; “Hollow Me,” with its Mellotron, lead saxophone in the break, and simple, repetitive melody, sounds like something 10cc might have dreamed up as a B-side to “I’m Not in Love.” The second version of “Beautiful” (the single mix, perhaps) is alike and yet completely different, trading in the groove for pop hooks and gentle insistence that sounds tailored for a banking commercial (or a Sea and Cake record). They’re the same song at heart, but the different readings are baffling. Likewise, “Listless Dream” is given two different readings; first, a reggae-tinged theme that aligns, unfortunately, with Eric Clapton’s “Tears in Heaven,” then is given a sporty upbeat and more thoughtful arrangement later in the album. Unable to focus on any one style, they return to the funk soon after in “Miserable and Ashamed,” the album’s fastest-paced cut, built off of obscured drum thump and the relentless, cyclical optimism of library music. Some tracks don’t make it at all; “Still Alive” would sound more at home on a children’s record, while “Dekinai” only livens up as it winds down – think Liquid Liquid really trying to hold back – in turn allowing its more keyed-up counterpart, “Sweet Surrender,” to unfold from essentially the same parts to a much more satisfying conclusion.

This hollowness spoken of permeates the entire record. Hollow doesn’t necessarily equate shallow in this case, as the beachfront mind state engendered by these 14 lengthy offerings, and ballasted by the pair of “album versions” in the center, are designed to calm things down. Beauty, alas, is in the eye of the beholder, but certainly, this is the band at their most restrained, at least since that “It Was a Robot” jam from a 12” single from a few years back. When they connect with the listener, there’s undeniable pleasure to be found, but the compositions may grate those who are looking for edgier thrills, and even then, fans may still have to meet them halfway. The rewards, however, are there.

By Doug Mosurock

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