Do you like JPop?
That's not a question polite people ask at dinner parties or in any situation where one's reputation is at stake. The types of people who might ask (and have the gall to respond in the affirmative) are often the self-marginalized, accused of having some sort of cultural fetish and (it is often speculated) poor social skills and bizarre, sometimes unsavory interests. These aren't the kinds of people you want to hang out with unless you're one of them, and even then you're pushing it. And if they're big on Japanese pop stars and all the stereotypes that come included, then what business have the rest of us to give one of those pop stars' records a spin?
Well, if you dig good music then Sheena Ringo's debut Muzai Moratorium
is your business. It's pop. It's rock. It's conventional, while at the same time foreshadowing Ringo's developing eccentricities and artistic ability. And as a former member of the aforementioned group of weirdies, I can attest to its virtue as a JPop album that stands head and shoulders above the industry's typical formulaic, superficial, soulless swill. This is an album of craft, and, like many of the best albums sung in English, it blends genres in new and exciting ways. And while it can't be called "JPop In Name Only" (like much of the artist's later work), it does come close enough that passersby who catch you with the window down at a red light with this album blaring won't have much cause for giving you the stink eye—all else being equal, of course.
The opening seconds of "Tadashii Machi" feature simple but lively drums and guitar feedback before Sheena starts wailing in lo-fi over a bassy wall of sound. She sings a couple lines, her guitar leads a couple lines, and then the party's started. Her vocal tone is sicky-sweet for the better part of the song and the melody sounds like something from an anime theme song but it's bearable, maybe even enjoyable depending on your state of mind; remember the market and think of it as easing the audience into the album. This also works as the inverse, as it gives non-Japanese listeners a smack of local flavor while retaining enough fuzz rock elements to keep the song in familiar territory. "Kabukichō no Joō" follows suit with an up-tempo, rhythmic, rolling tune with a guitar sound that harkens back to the days of surf rock, at least until the Tube Screamin' wailing in the middle eight. Oh yeah, now it's on.
Ringo consistently changes up her working genre from one song to the next. Traditional karaoke fodder "Marunouchi Sadistic" leads into grunge-lite with "Kōfukuron (Etsuraku-hen)"; JPop ballad "Akane Sasu, Kiro Terasaredo..." (complete with a verse sung in English, although her accent is so thick you can hardly notice) is followed by queer electronic thing "Sid to Hakuchūmu" that turns into an alt rock song with a swing beat for the chorus (and is that a harp?). And then the second half of the album starts up and it's mostly beautiful noise, loud and distorted and fun, with the occasional odd quirk tossed in for good measure. Hear her parody of traditional Japanese folk with a synthesized koto and heavy 4/4 beat at 1:36 of "Tsumiki Asobi", for example. "Onaji Yoru" is an acoustic ballad with guitar and old-timey sounding violin that gets squeakier as her voice gets sharper and a few heavy electric instruments that poke their noses into the end of the track. Soaring hard rock anthem "Keikoku" (my favorite on the album) has a middle verse where Ringo's vocals are overdubbed over the sound of her hard breathing; the title translates to "Caution" and the pace is exciting, which makes me wish there was an English translation of the lyrics somewhere.
Perhaps her most eclectic non-cover album, Muzai Moratorium
is impressive because it showcases Sheena Ringo's extraordinary talents and is actually nice to listen to. That it's not as structured or consistent as her later material is no doubt due to her having written almost every song in her teens prior to being signed. That it has obvious elements of JPop, including a couple songs that fit the description to a T, is also probably due to this fact, and it's telling that her next album, Shōso Strip
, came out one year later and bears practically none of the same pop trash. Her genre jumping and creative flourishes, then, are more so a preview of what's to come than a simple one-off. In this sense, Muzai Moratorium
(which translates to "Innocence Moratorium"), is about Sheena's shirking of vapid JPop conventions, her establishing an identity as an artist of substance (with a great deal of style to boot) over empty idolatry, and her introducing her craft to Japan and the world. Does this mean this is a perfect album? Of course not. Is it still worth listening to? You better believe it.