Review by J. Scott McClintock
Shugo Tokumaru is not (as many reviewers have assessed) the Japanese Sufjan Stevens. He may share some of Stevens' fascination with found instruments and eccentric acoustic arrangements, but that's where the similarities end. Tokumaru, in general, seems to go much deeper into his own musical world -- playing with sounds more and taking ideas much further. If comparisons must be made, it would better describe Tokumaru's trajectory to align him with the likes of a less predictable pop experimenter like Lindsey Buckingham. Like Buckingham, Tokumaru's songs can sound deceptively simple on the surface, but closer listening reveals a very sophisticated musician at work. Anyone can layer instruments on top of one another (and, with the advent of digital home recording, often to a ludicrous level), but it takes a real talent to sort out how they should fit together. This is where Tokumaru shines, especially on his album Exit -- a home-recorded affair that flirts with indulgence but rarely succumbs to it. That's an important point because a song like Exit's opener, "Parachute" -- with its multi-layered fingerpicked guitar propulsion and more melody lines than you could shake a stick at -- could have been just a predictable lo-fi mélange had someone else been at the helm. In Tokumaru's hands, indulgence is tempered with taste and taste is augmented by confident individuality and competent musicianship. That individuality and musical prowess are evident enough -- as Tokumaru is clearly at ease on a number of different instruments -- but all of that would amount to beans if you couldn't put it together just as expertly. In the arrangement department, Tokumaru displays both skill and mischievousness. He has a Brian Wilson-like penchant for playing instruments off of each other to achieve a greater result (just listen to the Pet Sounds playfulness of "La La Radio") and is fearless in his use of dissonance (check the gradually twisted interplay between the recorders and melodicas on "Clocca"). Ambitious as some of that may seem, Exit never feels like a show-off record -- just a thoughtfully put-together one.
(P-Vine/Almost Gold; 2007/2008)
Combined Rating: 79%
“Tokumaro music is as free as the wind.polished to a gentle sky mirror surface of the water.”
-Hitoshi Yoshino, as translated by Google
Listening to Shugo Tokumaru is like watching a documentary about monkeys on TV with the sound on mute, except instead of just watching you’re also watching yourself watching—like you can do in dreams, you know, and you’re standing looking over your own shoulder at these animals, which are just like you but different. And the you who is watching TV is thinking, “Man, these things are just like me, but different,” and the you watching the you watching TV is thinking, “That guy is pretty stupid, because he doesn’t even know that I’m standing back here,” and then that you just floats out of the window, climbs a tree, and starts mentally undressing the moon. And that you and the moon engage in what we can only call “love making,” though that’s not really the best term, for obvious reasons. And when it’s all over you smoke a cigarette with the moon, and the moon begins to cry and the tears from the moon drown someone rowing by in a little boat, like this:
You have to believe me when I tell you that guy lives. The second part of that story, the part that TV-watching-you and out-of-body-you doesn’t get to see is that the tears of the moon turn that guy into a merman, and he swims around with other merpeople and lives happily ever after. Because on Exit, Shugo Tokumaru is making frenetic, surreal pop music that I have to believe is about hope. It just sounds that way, and I don’t understand most of what he’s singing anyway.
Which reminds me: in a non-metaphorical way, listening to Shugo is like watching a foreign film with the subtitles off. You can’t “know” what’s being said (as if you can “know” anything, man, shit), but you can “understand” what’s happening. You can feel. And at the end, you can say “that was delirious and beautiful and fun.” Listening to Shugo is experiential and visual, and makes my words on his sounds feel clumsy, immature, weak. Which is why I’ll now briefly turn to plagiarism and video. I suppose I already have.
That Youtube clip up there is actually a brief excerpt from the video for “Parachute,” the song that opens this album. “Parachute” starts up like “Solsbury Hill” on speed, suggesting the pop (and occasional prog) feel of the most of the album. Shugo sings the word “parachute” in the chorus, but it sounds more like “bra-shoo.” It’s quite cute, and if you don’t already have thousands, it will be the first on your list of reasons to love Shugo. (Another one is his cover of “Young Folks,” which was originally recorded for our first Fantasy Podcast.) The “Parachute” video plays with as well as mocks this cuteness, by coupling rudimentary digital animation of cats and Christmas trees with stick people falling down and drowning. Take a look:
“Parachute” is just one of three songs to already have a video upon the album’s release, which I think speaks to the cinematic nature of Shugo’s compositions. Album closer “Wedding,” which doesn’t yet have a video, is mostly acoustic guitar and wind sound effects. Yet its melancholic beginning and ending (it’s by far the saddest song on the album), suggest a man abandoned at the altar, or perhaps an ex-lover looking on in gloom as his or her true love gets married. In the song’s middle, though, Shugo picks up the acoustic plucking and adds a simple rimshot drum beat to suggest the joy and celebration of the reception. It’s a beautiful three-minute story, and by far the simplest song on the album. It might have been the reason that Christophe Petchana penned these translated words: “This is amazing. He thought they were his cousins music seems more favorite sound. I heard a very pleasant!”
“Button” is by far the album’s standout track, and features another illustrated video, this one choosing to highlight Shugo’s implicit psychedelics. It features feathers, trees, swirling colors, and some drawings reminiscent (at least initially) of John Kricfalusi. The song is grounded by a melodic and percussive clanging of metals, layered with synth keys and Shugo’s confident vocal performance that varies from whispering to belting. The chorus, which sounds like “lei hey hey keeny,” is downright sing-alongable, and while I don’t know what this song has to do with buttons, I don’t care. Watch and learn:
The rest of the album (and the aforementioned third song with a video) continues the work that Shugo started when Night Piece (2004) first broke onto the scene: making focused, layered music that manages to escape its own boundaries. This is music that, thanks to the global marketplace, its own ingenuity, and Youtube, moves beyond boundaries of nation and language, sound and image, rationalization and emotion. I’ll leave the last words to the person who I gave the first to, Hitoshi Yoshino, whose Google translations capture everything serious, bizarre, and magical about Shugo Tolumaru’s Exit:
“Surface temperature and the temperature of the soul is not necessarily proportional to me.”
1 December 2007