Review by Jason Lymangrover
As the first full-length debut of Fujiya & Miyagi (their 2006 release was actually a compilation of songs from previously released EPs), Lightbulbs shows the Brighton Brits attempting to prove themselves as much more than a pseudo-Japanese novelty act. That's not to say that Dave Best and the gang have toned back their deadpan sense of humor. Nonsensical non-sequiturs, scatting onomatopoeias, and tongue twisters still dominate the lyrics, and the wry James Murphy-esque speakeasy delivery is still evident, but now the pep has been downplayed slightly to make for more mellowed grooves. The production has thickened a bit, too, courtesy of a higher concentration of ambient textures. Airy synths and breathy vocals render the songs too dreamy to dance to, and the funky basslines and mechanical beats render them too dancey to dream to. That's the sweet spot of F&M. Call the songs lackadaisical hypno-grooves, if you will, or use the band's label of "whisper-electro" to define the sound, but essentially it's calming, polite, electro-pop that invokes '60s lounge, '70s Krautrock, and '80s synth pop while staying relevant to more modern sounds popularized by Hot Chip, Ladytron, and Air. "Knickerbocker" is an infectious jam with a driving rhythm that pays tribute to Kraftwerk, a hook that subtly rips off the Beach Boys' "Kokomo" ("vanilla, strawberry, knickerbocker glory" mimics "Aruba, Jamaica, ooh I wanna take you") and verses that give props to Hans Christian Anderson, Lena Zavaroni, and Dietrich Knickerbocker. If that's not fun, what is?
Fujiya & Miyagi:
[Deaf Dumb & Blind; 2008]
Fujiya & Miyagi get off on the subtlest kinds of bait and switch. They're not Japanese, they're English. They're not a duo, they're a quartet. They're not really a krautrock band either, they just play danceable pop music with one hell of a deadpan expression. In that sense, they're basically a Hot Chip that impishly cribs the most stoic of musical styles, and fittingly their punchline hits with a lot less precision. Transparent Things succeeded by keeping a particularly unflappable poker face and not letting the calcified rhythms sound like a "Sprockets"-style send-up of German art culture. Lightbulbs doesn't exactly flash a "LAUGH" sign to its audience, but its constant tongue-in-cheekiness is kind of like Andy Kaufman's Great Gatsby gag-- funny in the abstract but frustrating to actually sit through.
Like Transparent Things, the track list here reads like a mix of medical charts and warehouse inventory reports, but the fusion of technology and biology is heavier on the flesh this time around. David Best's vocals drip with breathy overdubs and long, whispered phrases, a significant change from the staccato, almost robotic delivery on past releases. If gasps of falsetto and an increasingly throbbing rhythm make "Dishwasher" sound like Serge Gainsbourg making love to a kitchen appliance, what chance at chastity do songs with sultry titles like "Uh" and "Goosebumps" have?
F&M's dance credentials have always been iffy, and despite playing up their hushed lothario act here, the most kinetic tracks on Lightbulbs tend to be the most boring and predictable. The naughty "Uh" comes closest to capturing the hip irony of LCD Soundsystem or !!!, but its garden-variety bassline and melody gets hemmed and hewed for repeated use on "Pussyfooting", a barely memorable song except for its post-chorus scat transition. This isn't to say F&M don't have a dance track in them, but Lightbulbs's slick production is offset by an anticlimactic detachment from the band, who can only show us the dancefloor by filtering it through the stubborn wallflower's vantage point.
A few of these tracks find that sweet spot where fun and krautrock intersect, and predictably these are the bright spots. Opener "Knickerbocker" chugs along the same motorik beat as earlier single "Ankle Injuries", though Best hams it up quite a bit, spouting off non sequiturs about ice cream flavors, Lena Zavaroni, and Dietrich Knickerbocker in a catchy rave-up that feels like a thought experiment combining Neu! and "Love Shack". "Pickpocket" and "Pterodactyls" both lyrically and musically veer into the chill, winking dance territory ruled by artists like Hot Chip and White Williams, while instrumental closer "Hundreds & Thousands" recalls the opener's steady four-on-the-floor heartbeat, this time with a dramatic (at least for these guys) farewell flourish added by the keyboards.
While not guilty of carrying any true bombs, Lightbulbs does reveal how the band's stand-offish approach can serve as both a safety net and an anchor. F&M have yet to write a song that evokes any sort of melancholy, or really any kind of emotion for that matter. Even Can had stuff like "Sing Swan Song". Until then, though, the band seems content giving listeners blue balls and their songs ironic names and austere backdrops. I just hope that if or when they ever do decide to deliver the payoff to these dry setups, audiences are still interested enough to listen.
- Adam Moerder, September 18, 2008