Review Summary: I can't stop my heartbeat...just freeze! just freeze! just freeze!“Hi, I’m calling to request a copy of Melt-Banana’s Teeny Shiny!”
“You know…their album that came out in 2000! In between their big deal albums Charlie and Cell-Scape…yeah, that one!”
came out in 2000.
“Uh, so, can I hear it or what…”
You can hear it.
“Okay! Great! But just to check, I really want to hear lots of distortion and fastness and a guitar that doesn’t sound like a guitar and English that isn’t English and - “
This is a Melt-Banana album.
is a Melt-Banana album. The preamble ends here: the standard set of associations pinned on the band’s distinctive style are as relevant here as they are to any of the band’s work. This album speedy and dazzling and fully of interesting textures and violently distortional without ever entering aggressive or hateful territory. Anyone looking for another Melt-Banana and without much fussiness about its further particularities can stop reading here and go right ahead and listen. It’s quite unlikely that this will be a point of introduction to their work for just about anyone, and this quite appropriate: it doesn’t have the production value or fleet-footedness of either of its neighbouring albums and lands as a mild grower coming from a band whose charm is gloriously face-value.
What Teeny Shiny
does have to mark its place within the MxBx discog is a certain weightedness that distances it from the band’s usual flash-in-a-pan feel and leaves it somewhere slower, a little stripped back and somewhat brutal. In terms of run-time and sequencing, nothing’s amiss here - the tracks are arranged quite sensibly and the album is in fact one of Melt-Banana’s shortest - but each track seems to linger and lurch in a way that somewhat protracts a full listen. Where typical Melt-Banana is electrically agile, this album is flat-nosed and pretty darn ugly. This is in part due to its muddy production value (which Pitchfork (probably rightly) attributes its likely being recorded as quickly as possible in between tours) and in part thanks to an affinity for unmistakably awkward rhythms delivered so mechanically that I initially thought the drums were programmed (to my understanding, they are not).
This is most obvious on Flash Cube Or Eyeball
, Cub, Not Cube
and Bright Splat (Red Point, Black Dot)
which lurch their way through uncomfortable grooves and, in spite of their relatively high RPMs, come across with a good deal more murk and sluggishness than typical MxBx fare. These songs just about get by with their stop-start mechanics, although they take a while to adjust to; what initially plays out like a total mess continues to do so to a certain degree, but with all manner of curveball attractions for patient listeners. Bright Splat
, for instance, opens with a double-time click track just north of 160 bpm only for its groove to burst in like a drunk spider in hilarious parody of the straight time count that continues underneath it, while Cub
leans on whole tones for an atonal effect that at first seems unlistenable but becomes gradually infectious, and the syncopated militarism of the beat Flash Cube
drops into at around 0:45 is punctuated with incredibly entertaining siren-like guitar squeaks. The latter song seems to burn itself out after around two minutes, only to wryly restart its opening moments and only then fade away belatedly - this tongue-in-cheek structural play is very much welcome and adds to the album’s general entertainment.
I’m still not entirely sure how critical I feel in describing Teeny Shiny
as ugly. Melt-Banana have always been a band to rubbish all manifestations of conventional tastefulness and to replace it with something stranger, messier, more bizarrely genuine and, absolutely, far more exciting. This album’s seemingly club-footed lumberings are no exception to this, and they’re crisscrossed with more than enough of the band’s trademark explosions of speed and creative guitar stylings to feel appropriately entertaining. If anything, the jarring grooves is ultimately quite refreshing, given how Melt-Banana’s generally relentless speed can occasionally misplace rhythmic nuance for tempo maximalism.
Intriguingly enough, the same clunky sense of ugliness also applies to the album’s light-speed moments. The vigorous repetition of Warp, Back Spin
’s head-spinning hyperdrive, for instance, is every bit as heavy-handed as Flash Cube
’s clutter and churn and Third Attack
’s verse loop packages the same kind of trance provided by broken VHS tapes and seemingly endless angle-grinder jobs into a format totally devoid of the usual tedium associated with these things. One small step for man…
The other distinctive thing about Teeny Shiny
that really sets it apart is the vast power commanded by Rika Hamamoto’s bass performance. For my money, she’s the star player here; while Agata’s revelationary guitar technique traditionally steals the show and Yasuko O’s vocals are as anathema to understatement as ever, it’s Rika’s thunderous tone and swaggering precision that blend particularly well with the album’s lurching style and carry it from start to finish. Teeny Shiny
is the same kind of bass album as, say, Unwound’s Repetition
, Interpol’s Turn Off The Bright Lights
or Isis’ Wavering Radiant
- these album’s songs are contingent on robust basslines, but the bassists in question go so far beyond their call of duty that it’s difficult not to recognise them as their bands’ real heroes. As a founding member who stayed on until 2013 (that’s over two decades’ involvement), Rika is absolutely key to the greater scheme of Melt-Banana, though she was somewhat overshadowed by her two longterm bandmates’ legendary levels of novelty. On the whole, she never redefined or departed from the role of the rhythm section in the way that Agata and Yasuko did their respective roles, but her contributions were never less than rock solid and Teeny Shiny’s
disjointed rhythmic schtick gave her a rare opportunity to come into her own. It’s also somewhat satisfying to realise that she epitomises the tiny girl/huge sound trope to an even greater degree than Yasuko, but that’s just part of the wallpaper with Melt-Banana.
It’s difficult to pick out individual missteps from the many, many general flaws in production value and off-the-wall songwriting choices (the latter of which are, of course, perversely enjoyable to a point), but the album’s two best tracks stand tall and, to its credit, embody every quality that feels specific to this album. Lost In Mirror
is probably the slickest track here, revolving around a huge bassline evocative of all things syncopation and swagger; the clash between this bass rumble and Agata’s typewriter-gone-mad guitar impression is incredibly simple yet effective, gleefully indicating of the album’s wider crudeness. As for the closer, Moon Flavor
, sluggishness is absolutely key; the tempo is still high, but the trundle of the main riff gives Agata enough space in the verses to play with more funk-inspired tones to great effect. This song has more of an open jam feel to it in places, while trading off a well-implemented verse/chorus pairing to build momentum up to a conventional climax of sorts, over which Yasuko’s toneless repetition of “Just freeze” numbs the listener towards the album’s final moments. It’s a very orderly song by the band’s standards, and consequentially feels entirely appropriate as a closer; the band’s sonic irreverence finds its final form on this most concertedly clumsy album in a nod towards traditional songwriting, helped in part by the fact that Yasuko’s typically incomprehensible English lyrics are both on form and mostly audible for a change. Moon Flavor
twists Teeny Shiny
’s jittery awkwardness and thick tones into a straight banger and makes a greatly satisfying place for it to come to rest. Conversely, as though to cover all bases from the outset, opener and fan favourite Free the Bee
is perhaps the most conventional Melt-Banana song here with its less ambitious (but still domineering) bassline, a squawking guitar hook and a lightspeed chorus that seems to borrow from no musical language other than the band’s own.
falls in the unenviable position of both being overshadowed by the band’s classics and coming from the peak stretch of their career, withholding it any concessions that cult and/or apocryphal status might have brought it in a reevaluation. It’s easy to see why its difficult, muddy feel keeps it from being counted one of Melt-Banana’s best, and it would likely make a dreadful starting point for any new listeners, but for what it’s worth, it does bring something of its own to the table and serves as a cogent reminder that the novelty and innovation so essential to the band’s flurry of a discography aren’t always as superficial or immediate as they may seem.