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Western Pop Through Alien Eyes PDF Print E-mail
Music - Feature Stories
Tuesday, 25 February 2003 18:00
The Japanese band Elekibass produces a type of music that both loses and gains something in translation, almost as if aliens visited Earth and tried to combine several types of sugar-sweet pop as a way of explaining Western music. The reproduction is pretty rough, but it actually ends up being something fresh and new.

Certainly, the result is more than a little comical – English is clearly a second language – and the novelty factor is high. But the synthesis is great fun, and something that would be difficult to conceive of without some cultural distance. Put the Beatles, the Beach Boys, clarinet-driven polkas, a brass band, and sound effects into a lo-fi blender, and Elekibass is what you might get.

Elekibass is coming to the Quad Cities this weekend, with a performance Saturday at RIBCO with 63 Crayons (another pop-obsessed band, but from this country) and the local outfit Driver of the Year. This is probably one of the best chances we’ll get this year to hear some genuinely off-center music.

Elekibass’ debut record, California, is a great example of how to make weightless, meaningless pop music. (Elekibass’ record shares its title with a similarly omnivorous record by Mr. Bungle, and while the two certainly sound very different, they are both fearless in their willingness to combine different musical styles.) California’s melodies and harmonies are timeless and tight, and they’re good enough that it’s easy to overlook that the English lyrics are so difficult to understand that they sound like artfully arranged gibberish. (The song titles might give some indication: “Let’s Brian,” “Trouble Bom-Bom,” “Beginning for Apartment.”) Even when you can understand the words, they’re sung primarily in the service of the tune, rather than the lyrics. All this results in something that approximates performance art, a project demonstrating how pop music can get by on verve and performance alone.

The album starts with a mariachi band playing for half a minute, and that’s followed by the polka-like “You Share the Same Heart in Theory,” featuring a tuba-like bass line and a clarinet. The American version of the record covers a lot of territory in a little time, with 16 tracks in less than 38 minutes. Despite its nonsense title, “Let’s Brian” stands out with its interweaving clarinet and guitar leads and Youiti Sakamoto’s spirited singing. “La Coste” is a short a cappella number that leads into “Trouble Bom-Bom,” which has some Flaming Lips-style production touches and then collapses on itself two minutes in. A fuzz guitar jumps out of nowhere for the chorus of “Daniel,” and its surprising entrance is a perfect jolt.

And therein is one of the truly charming aspects of Elekibass; while it might seem derivative and jokey at the outset, the band isn’t afraid to mix things up and seems genuinely interested in a new fusion of styles.

A fascination with ’60s pop (particularly the Beach Boys) is also evident with Virginia-based 63 Crayons, but the results aren’t quite as compelling. The band produces well-executed ditties with some oddball flourishes, but there’s something missing. It might only be that these folks lack the novelty of Elekibass, but more than that I think they lack the conviction of what they’re doing. Pop music must feel effortless, and 63 Crayons seems to be sweating figuring how to make the six tracks on the Spread the Love EP stand out. As a result, there’s a sense of fun missing.

The EP’s best track, “Emma Peel,” rectifies that problem nicely; it’s a high-energy romp whose idiosyncrasies seem part of the song instead of layers trying to dress it up. “Blue & Red” is close behind with its soaring chorus.

Formally, the main difference between Elekibass and 63 Crayons is that the latter band never diverges from the pop formula; the group only augments it with sonic tricks. The basic tracks, then, have a certain predictability that makes them feel like products of nostalgia instead of original thought.

But it’s important to keep in mind that these are two sugary pop acts, and over-intellectualizing them is a serious mistake. Both Elekibass and 63 Crayons craft wonderfully eccentric songs that instantly find a happy spot in the heart and head. And that’s quite a feat.

For more information on Elekibass, visit (http://members.jcom.home.ne.jp/eleki-b/english/index.html). Both bands’ music is available from Happy Happy Birthday to Me at (http://www.hhbtm.com).
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