Review Summary: An album made for breezy summers and beers with friends.
Japan, as any Hollywood movie will likely point out, has been a pretty isolated nation for most of its history. Certainly, Japan is careful about what it lets into its culture, and not unexpectedly, doesn’t share everything it produces with the rest of the world. In the world of music, dozens of bands remain in obscurity outside of Japan, but if you search for them you’re bound to find some gems. Number Girl, who formed in 1995, are just such a Japanese gem.
Number Girl released their debut album “School Girl Bye Bye” four years after forming, while signed to a small label. Though they probably are best described as “indie”, their sound is expansive and covers a nice amount of musical ground. The album begins with the cheerful opener “Omoide in My Head”: several drum rolls and guitar chords lead into chaotic, hardcore-styled riffing, but soon after Number Girl reveal their true colours. The song turns into a groovy, upbeat jam with chimey rhythm guitar and lead guitar that never seems to repeat itself. Vocals are faintly sung in the background, and every so often Shutoku Mukai will shout out lyrics like a madman, quickly switching back into his dreamy chanting. Even with its’ nearly 7 minute length, the song doesn’t feel stale or unwelcome, and in fact is one the best tracks on the album.
Like the opening track, the album contains a big range of sound, sometimes verging on grating and chaotic, while at other times it’s pleasant and overly happy. “September Girlfriend” for example, has thundering bass and power chording guitars, easily fitting in on an early punk record record, while “Summer of ‘72” has a slower, depressing tempo and vibe not unlike 90s grunge. It’s not to say that Number Girl isn’t original, it’s just that they clearly have a wide range of influences which appear on their debut. Even the third track, “センチメンタル過剰”, can’t help but remind me of early Weezer with its strained vocals and weird fuzzed-out guitar solo. Every song on the album is catchy and fun, no matter the vibes some of them put out. Strange chords and hardcore vocals sneak into several songs, which may turn away casual listeners, but will encourage others. I certainly found the occasionally erratic vocals refreshing.
All of the lyrics are sung in Japanese, though this certainly doesn’t detract from the greatness or fun of the album. Even with my (almost non-existent) basic grasp of Japanese, I had no idea what Shutoku Mukai was shouting out, but it really doesn’t matter in the long run. He isn’t a fantastic singer, either, with a small range that tends to feel pretty similar on most songs. Luckily Mukai mixes up his delivery on the tracks, so while on “Omoide in my Head” they sound distant and subdued, they’re much more upfront and aggressive on “水色革命”. The album has a sameness to it, partly because of the vocals, but each song introduces little touches like fun lead riffs or cool drum rolls to add diversity to the album. Despite this, the band is clearly focused on their frontman, and more input from the other members would have added to the album's replay value.
The production on the album remains one of my favourite aspects. It clearly is lo-fi and at times shoddy, but still manages to sound great at the same time. The chimey rhythm guitar is always high in the mix, with lead jumping in to add a solo or lick only occasionally. Vocals are hit with a heavy amount of reverb, giving them a distant quality for many tracks, and backing vocals are rare if not absent. Still, the vocals definitely fit with the sound. In terms of rhythm, the bass is probably the best mixed instrument on the album: you can always hear it’s catchy, speedy lines backing the songs. Without the bass, the album would probably fall apart. On the opposite end of the spectrum, the drums are mixed more poorly, often sounding lifeless. To make things worse, they’re always front and center, and at times I wish the drummer would take a water break for some songs. The drums also add to the sameness of the album, due to their “beat-roll-beat” feel that almost never changes. Luckily, “Mini Grammar” has the best example of this albums’ drums, giving them a break and changing the beat while also letting them rip for certain sections, but unfortunately comes in too late to the album to save it.
“School Girl Bye Bye” is worth your time if you’re into upbeat, occasionally chaotic 90s music, or you happen to be a Nippo-phile looking for more Japanese jams. The album hints at later work by Number Girl and Mukai's follow up band Zazen Boys, but remains a truly solid debut that mixes hardcore, alternative, and post-punk sounds that’ll get you banging your head along. It loses points simply because many of the tracks blend into one another too often; it sounds like Number Girl, but it’s hard to pinpoint the song without the tracklist. Nonetheless, it’s a pretty fantastic album that reminds me, in spirit more than sound, of a an upbeat and less egotistical Weezer (though if you hate Weezer like James Burns, I still suggest giving this a chance). “School Girl Bye Bye” is simultaneously listenable and jarring, but remains the perfect album to put on and jam with a few friends. Plus it’ll make you seem cultured.