Review Summary: The best of times, the worst of times.
It's always depressing to watch a once-great band's descent into mediocrity. For many artists, the decline is gradual and often stands out only in retrospect over many albums. For others, the process is quick and painful. We can all think of groups that showed great promise on one or two records only to suffer a meteoric fall from grace – Weezer and Interpol come to mind. The Pillows are in the odd position of doing both. Since forming in 1989, the band created a huge discography of consistent quality for over fifteen years. But despite some fans decrying the group's post-2000 records, their later releases hold up to scrutiny quite well – to a point. Sure, from 2001 onward, forgettable and filler songs seemed to gradually increase, but the good tracks from each record were all good enough that it could be forgiven.
But here in 2011, something seems to have gone horribly wrong. The band's last few albums are all Weezer-esque exercises in dull power-pop, as stale and lifeless as the processed, plastic-wrapped sandwiches that line the shelves of Japanese convenience stores. These days, the good tracks are few and far between. So what happened? As it turns out, there is a definite point at which The Pillows fell into real mediocrity: signing with Avex Trax. It's pretty clear that moving to the label that publishes the likes of Ayumi Hamasaki was not going to be a good move for an alt-rock band that once seemed so exuberantly authentic. But fortunately, The Pillows gave us one last good album with King Records.
While My Foot is symptomatic of the problems present in their past two or three records, the high moments compensate for the lows. The opening title track is simply outstanding, beginning with a fuzzy bass line before introducing the warm dual guitar interplay between Yamanaka and Manabe that characterizes the song. The track offers a surprising reminder that for the majority of their career, The Pillows have never really taken advantage of their dual-guitar dynamic as they do on this album. Yamanaka's guitar is usually nearly invisible in the mix, but on this record dual guitar parts take a prominent role and work quite well together. Adding to the song's credit, the band takes its time to develop ideas instead of spitting everything out too quickly and without thought – as they tend to do elsewhere. And Sawao's vocals sound clear and enjoyable, not quite as raspy as on the past three or so albums.
Unfortunately, the next two tracks, Rock N' Roll Sinners and The Air Resistor, fail to build on the title track's promise with their generic and unremarkable sounds – these songs aren't horrible, but they're utterly unremarkable and recall the weaker portions of Good Dreams. Fortunately, the first single, The Third Eye, gets the ball moving again. It brings back the dual guitar dynamic to great effect, and has a somewhat darker, driving sound at points. It's worth pointing out that the dual guitar parts don't sound like the British post-punk that was so in vogue at the time this record was released, instead feeling like a natural approach the band should have been utilizing long ago.
Mighty Lovers and Degeneration are two more filler tracks that go from bad to worse, the latter being one of the dullest, most unremarkable songs the band had ever penned up to this point. The album's contrast between good and bad is even more jarring with Nonfiction, the album's other single, being sandwiched between the two songs. It's a good song: playful but creative, with less predictable guitar and choruses that one expects from a Pillows song of this style. There's even a bit of a noise breakdown that's unlike anything the group has ever done before; one wishes it went farther, but expecting Yamanaka to tilt the song into a Sonic Youth-esque noise-fest is probably asking too much.
Fortunately, if one can survive Degeneration, things get better. March of the God is a terrific instrumental, a forceful, driving tune that recalls Thunder Whales Picnic. The song makes use of the capable but often-neglected skills of bassist Jun Suzuki. My Girl has great melodies and a nice guitar solo. It highlights that one of the weaknesses of recent Pillows releases is the emphasis on brainless happy songs with no substance instead of the melancholy that fuels the group's best albums. Sayonara Universe is simply fantastic, starting slow and building to a dramatic and pleasing climax, surprisingly reminiscent of some of the group's earliest material. And Gazelle city finishes on another high note, a bouncier tune with more great guitar playing.
My Foot is a frustrating album. The good parts are incredibly good, but the bad songs seriously detract from the record's potential. It's even more frustrating because both singles had terrific b-sides that would have been more welcome on this record than the filler tracks. Despite its flaws, My Foot is an overall pleasing and enjoyable final album with King Records. It's sad that their releases seem to get progressively worse from here, but at least the band had the grace to give listeners one more (mostly) solid album before that.