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Nobukazu Takemura - Songbook

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Artist: Nobukazu Takemura

Album: Songbook

Label: Bubble Core

Review date: May. 21, 2003


Ever since 1999's Scope, Nobukazu Takemura has been unfairly tossed off as an IDM musician, alongside more visible, and increasingly less fascinating work by Autechre and Aphex Twin. In the six years since Takemura's Child & Magic, his popularity has grown massively in the States, and not just in public visibility; Takemura has been an often unmentioned influence on a good portion of progressive electronic albums released over that timespan. Apparently recorded around the same time as Takemura's work on Scope, Jim O'Rourke's I'm Happy, I'm Singing, and a 1, 2, 3, 4 often gave a sense of Takemura's work, reeking most strongly of the standout track on Scope, "Kelper.” There was a rumored collaboration between the two that never seemed to come to fruition. Who more than Takemura, had such a big effect on combing the abrasive vernacular of recent electronic experimentation with sweet, comfortable melody? Was the motivation behind Tortoise’s Standards really all of the dub, Morricone, and Aphex Twin the critics picked up on? What about saccharine-packed releases on the Carpark label? Any number of the post-Takemura releases on Bubble Core and Thrill Jockey seem to be attempting to hone in on Nobbie T’s signature ideas.

Maybe this romanticizes Takemura a little bit more than his work merits; maybe he is more of a component of this burgeoning (or once burgeoning) musical culture than its key luminary. Yet, this is the man who apparently introduced hip hop to Japan in the 80s, and his work has elicited little more than befuddled critics shooting off about Steve Reich and childhood. It’s not that anyone is missing the point, but even at his most accessible Takemura’s work maintains a certain frustrating, but seemingly intentional sloppiness: Wrong notes; missed beats; protracted tangents; jarring variety; hermetic reference points; a knack for found sound; an almost uniform reliance on MIDI. In spite of all this, critics and fans alike want to embrace Takemura and prickly works like Scope, Hoshi No Koe, Water Suite as being somehow easy listening. This is misleading. Takemura’s music never allows passive listening. It is child-like, but far from simple; it is like an aural board game.

There is a filmmaker, Jacques Tati, who makes comedic films inspired, in many ways, by the traditions laid down by Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, and Harold Lloyd. Tati, however, uses sound, framing, and color for effects that never occurred to the silent comedians, technologically. All of the concrete sounds in Tati’s films are made after-the-fact, meaning, if someone sits down in a chair, Tati will often go into the studio and overdub an incredibly unpleasant wheezing sound to exaggerate and abstract the role sound plays in our life. The second technique that is relevant here involves framing. A single shot in a Tati film might take up 10 minutes. No camera motion, no edits, nothing. By setting up a long shot, Tati will make four or five things happen at once, playing with the viewer’s eyes, diverting his attention from one location to another, bouncing all over the screen, completely engaged. The viewer, in many ways, becomes responsible for his experience in the theater. He can only focus on one of the five things at once, and the things he chooses to focus on determine what he gets out of the film.

Takemura’s music has spent the past six years touching upon these ideas, but never quite fulfilling them. Takemura’s use of MIDI, of a familiar cartoonish tone palette, is not an end in and of itself, but rather an abstracted replica of any number of musical ideas, ranging from numerous pop, jazz, and ethnic music sects, dissonant Neo-classicism, and of course, minimalism. How Takemura is reminiscent of Tati’s framing ideas is a little bit more complicated. Somewhere, in those wrong notes and missed beats, in those massive collages of sound fragments, in the way the electronics on Scope are recorded as if you’re hearing them in a big room, Takemura is trying to make the listener see small jokes, small diversions, interwoven in the general flow of his music.

Songbook is probably the most organic release in Takemura’s already dense discography. The computer fetishism that has been a component of almost all prior releases is thankfully absent here. In the first track, as well as many others, Takemura might eschew MIDI for an acoustic instrument. This is sparse for Takemura, who could often frustrate with an uneven drum loop and a vocoded voice. This is probably the glimpse of Takemura that listeners have been waiting for. It’s not particularly conceptual, choosing to direct its attention at melding songwriting and increasingly deft and engaging composition. It’s trance-inducing, and possibly the most perfect incarnation of Takemura as a pop musician. Songs with English titles, “Curious World”, “Tadpole in the Puddle”, “Strings From The Moon”, and “Swimmy”, deal with a very practical sense of euphoria, an appreciation for being alive. This is something all of Takemura’s work seems to radiate, but the larger-than-life, animated, electronic parts are absent here, allowing a greater sense of versatility.

Eighteen songs in 74 minutes, Songbook is a big album, cementing Takemura’s off-putting prolific spurt. Yet, the wrong notes are no longer as unsettlingly – there are sections of extended dissonance, missed beats, but nothing disruptive. Listen to the jagged Conlon Nancarrow-meets-MIDI sounds of “Tulala” or the strange, almost innocently progressive rock vocal arrangements of “Strings From The Moon” – songs that parallel the harmonic choices of recent Stereolab albums – and you’ll see the Takemura’s emblematic decisions come to life in a completely refined sense. “Evening” closes the album in what becomes all the more broken-hearted of a note, after the sweet and grateful variety of the past hour-plus.

At first I was disappointed that some of the diversions, the engaging play of earlier albums was lost due to the incredible fine-tuning of Songbook. But the slight buzzing noise I noticed, finally, in my last listening of “Evening” reminded me of all the other sounds I had ignored. The sounds of steps in “Mirror Tower”, or the hisses in “Turutiksbinbon (Fr Ver)”; the subtle, almost non-existent glitches; the way some songs open up into a sea of reverberation; how “Story of the Star” is only 30 seconds; the stagger of “Bell Buoy”. It’s all here. The nuance, the interaction, five things at once that only make complete sense one-at-a-time, with none of the playful, gentle accessibility comprised. Songbook might be the finest album in Takemura’s career.

By Matt Wellins

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