Review by Marisa Brown
Not in fact Japanese, and not in fact even a duo (besides "Fujiya" -- keyboardist and beat-maker Steve Lewis -- and "Miyagi" -- guitarist and vocalist Dave Best -- there's also "&," bassist Matt Hainsby), Fujiya & Miyagi draw from influences like Neu! and Talking Heads to create warm, looping guitar riff-driven organic dance music that fits nicely next to other mid-2000s alternative dance bands like the Teddybears, Hot Chip, and even LCD Soundsystem. Live guitars and keyboards layer over funky basslines and mechanized drums, while Best whisper-sings about, among other things, broken bones, feeling OK, star signs, and "just pretending to be Japanese." Six of the tracks on Transparent Things, their debut full-length, had previously appeared as vinyl 10"s, but here, redone and with the addition of three new songs (and a U.S. bonus cut, "Reeboks in Heaven"), the album gives more listeners the chance to hear what the Brighton, England-based band is capable of. Mostly, this means happily quirky but accessible pieces with plenty of syncopated rhythms, elongated syllables, and trilled Rs, courtesy of Best's cordially sexy voice. The first three tracks, "Ankle Injuries," "Collarbone," and "Photocopier," are all bright and upbeat and thoroughly catchy, and probably the strongest pieces on the album, some in part because Fujiya & Miyagi's aforementioned formula isn't as noticeable then as it is later. Not that Transparent Things is too samey or predictable, because it's not. The group has found something that works and does it well, with consistently enjoyable results, so much so that songs on which they break away from that, the lighter, indie rock-esque "Cylinders," for example, are more distracting than anything else. But when F&M stick to simple dance melodies and wound-up instrumental grooves, they're as good as anyone else out there.
Fujiya & Miyagi:
[Tirk/Word and Sound; 2006]
This Brighton trio's third long-player, a singles-compilation-plus, is big fun to overthink. The witty lyrics toss biomatter into the same heap of vague "things" as technomatter; thus you get songs called "Photocopier" and "Cassettesingle" snugly beside songs called "Collarbone" and "Ankle Injuries". Obsessing about F&M's obsession with thingness forces one to conclude that this album is a mysterious relic from an alternate 1971.
Think about it: In 1971, British writer Alan Watts released Does It Matter?: Essays on Man's Relation to Materiality, in which he argued (among other "things") that humans aren't really true materialists, with our reverence for materials, resources and craft. Rather, he typed, we're abstractists, caught in our preference for stockpiling plastic gewgaws. Transparent Things playfully spoofs and luxuriates in how we're possessed by our possessions. One song's speaker wants to "kick it" with a girl, but first he's "got to get a new pair of shoes." Another's chorus taunts, "I'm just monkeying around with your furniture," after the verse cites spilled "bodily fluids" and how the subject "must be off [his/her] bleeding rocker." In context, "bleeding" suggests actual blood rather than the UK default pejorative. With comic detachment, the lyrics' casual violence contrasts with the music's antiseptic cleanness enough to make one recall the sterile/obscene, bodylike/inorganic sculptures from the milkbar and the murder victim's house in Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange (ahem, 1971).
Anyway: Alan Watts went on to become a Nipponophile, leading temple tours in Japan and even getting accused of faking his enlightenment; Fujiya & Miyagi readily admit their impostorship in a chorus on this album, as if the whole thing was a meticulous piss-take: "We were just pretending to be Japanese." True: Fujiya's a turntable company, and Miyagi's the filmic Okinawan played by Pat Morita who instructs sullen white kids in martial arts. Fujiya & Miyagi presumably relish urban Japan's cultural gizmosis, the fixation with gadgetry and the attention to detail paid even on the level of toy eraser design. F&M's carefully constructed retro-futuristic electronica definitely suggests the quaint, boxy dawn of portable media. And what year did Sony begin selling televisions in Britain, prompting the Time Magazine cover story "Japan, Inc"? That would be 1971.
The "coincidence" continues: Can and Neu! are the acts whose production and syncopation F&M most acefully cop; both acts were either recording or releasing their crucial work in 71. "In One Ear and Out the Other" bounces with Eno-era Roxy Music's eerie psychedelic-lounge sound; yup, they formed and recorded their debut in 71. "Sucking Punch" apes the falsetto vox, pimpy guitar, and whomping, slinky bass of both Curtis Mayfield's 1971-recorded Superfly and Serge Gainsbourg's 1971 LP Historie de Melody Nelson. And the name of the lengthy instrumental that best synthesizes (the 1971-recorded) Kraftwerk 2 with the best of the rest of krautrock's stoner-jazz and metronome-prog? "Conductor 71".
To be fair, Can and Neu! aren't the only three-letter outfits that F&M echo: This band has processed bits of contemporaries such as Air, DFA/LCD, and BoC. At points, the funk and the unrhyming lyrics even mount to imply various UK greats: A muted Happy Mondays here, a stream-of-consciousness Streets there. And yet, F&M's coy pose comes off as somehow original. David Best doesn't speak-sing about commodities with the abandon of say, Sisqo harmonizing "thong-th-thong-thong-thong," but he also sidesteps the posthuman staidness with which Ladytron tried to address blue jeans and cracked plastic (during "Blue Jeans" and "Cracked Plastic", respectively) back on Light & Magic.
A kind of consumer-Zen can be heard in the way Best sings the fabulously confident title track's refrain, "I look through transparent things and I feel okay," pronouncing the last word, "O-kehh." Is he talking about seeing through eyeglasses? Drink glasses? Or, by noting the behavioral norms (of litterbugs, cyclists, and college students) and their "grids," "zones," and "boxes," is Best referring to the matrixy systems in which most of us are transparently ensnared? Either way, F&M's execution of old modes is authoritative enough to ward off soundalike syndrome, just as Interpol somehow dodge their ancestors' arrows.
The album's weaker spots are its louder numbers about actual monogamous desire, which seem banal next to the whispered, anchorless prosaic observations of the songs that would only count as "rave-ups" at some secret librarian party held on a monastery's roof. A group so adept at merely creating an irresistible pulse seems overextended when trying to concoct a banger. I mean, come on, they begin this album with shy in-house brand enthusiasm, chanting "Fujiya" and "Miyagi" in barely audible voices!
The relatively effete and Euro-centric American poet Wallace Stevens is famously supposed to have said to the relatively dudeish and homelandy American poet Robert Frost, upon meeting: "The trouble with you is you write about things." To which Frost replied: "The trouble with you is you write about bric-a-brac." Via fiery slightness, Fujiya & Miyagi humbly request that you dance to both.
- William Bowers, September 14, 2006