Review Summary: The cutest classic of them all
Soutaisei Riron (trans. Theory of Relativity) are a Japanese indie group and their debut, Hi-Fi Anatomia
, is perhaps the most essential indie-pop album I’ve heard to date.
This is a bold claim, but one that can be supported thoroughly. It’s unassuming but finely crafted; it’s undramatic but highly playful; it’s unextravagant but full of excellent musicianship and chemistry; it’s relaxing but also enlivening. It was also perfect for its time and place; it came out at a time when pop on the Japanese front was a stagnant wash of overproduced swill and indie on the Western front was dominated by moody, over-earnest postulations from the likes of Arcade Fire, Deerhunter and Beach House, and I honestly can’t imagine anything more refreshing than hearing this around its release. Nowadays J-pop is still dominated by idol pop but has been somewhat revitalised by exciting voices such as Oomori Seiko, Haru Nemuri and Manatsu Nagahara, while Western indie has had the benefit of more prominently energetic acts like Hop Along and Wolf Alice; Japanese indie has, as ever, been a mix of interesting sounds, but Soutaisei Riron’s influence has underpinned a significant swathe of the scene over the last decade. Hi-Fi Anatomia
still sounds as fresh as ever and remains a high water mark both for the band and the style.
That covers the bigger picture, but Soutaisei Riron (and their music) have never been particularly concerned with such things. One of the most famous aspects of the band is, ironically enough, its lack of public profile. Japan’s most internationally renowned groups tend to explore striking aesthetics and stylisation (Buck-Tick, X Japan), to project an excitable, interview-ready personality (Maximum the Hormone, Mass of the Fermenting Dregs), to produce unforgettably strange music (Midori, Shinsei Kamattechan), or some combination of the three (Melt-Banana). Soutaisei Riron, on the other hand, are antithetical to all of these approaches. Their brand is an unexclamative shade of kawaii; they keep their personal lives entirely out of the public sphere and don’t interview or even allow photography at their shows; their sound is a recognisable mode of indie pop that will likely sound at least vaguely familiar to any new listeners. This seems to put them at an immediate disadvantage, but their music is well-recognised and the band’s platform commands a decent level of respect; they boast a major label signing, they’ve performed with My Bloody Valentine, and vocalist/producer Etsuko Yakushimaru picked up a prize in 2017 for a medium experiment directed towards encoding pop music into DNA. Her own career is as press-shy and quietly prolific as the band’s and she makes for an unlikely icon as a frontwoman for a group as eminent as they are elusive.
Part of the reason that people make so much of the band’s enigmatic media silence is that their music is so full of character. Hi-Fi Anatomia
has an easy charm that can be traced from Yakushimaru’s coquettish delivery and the pop lilt, to the unobtrusively colourful guitar leads that run fluidly through each track, to the simplicity and unpretentiousness of the arrangements. Any given moment on this album is one hundred percent stress-free, thanks in no small part to the sparse production; this leads to a somewhat airy first impression, since all the album’s assists are on open display and executed with such simplicity that they may seem superficial and insubstantial to begin with. However, as the strength of its songwriting and understated delivery becomes increasingly apparent it takes on a very welcoming tone oriented towards rich, relaxing melodies, playful lyrics, and a gentle sense of fun.
As far as individual songs are concerned, it’s difficult and not particularly worthwhile to pick out highlights. Sawayaka Kaishain
is perhaps the most expansive thing here, with its momentous chorus leading through to jangly guitar solos and upscaled with one of the band’s trademark key changes, and TV Tokyo
opens the album with such quaintness and grace that it’s hard to avoid praising it, but there’s such a great level of consistency across the board that the album’s well-advertised 33 minutes feel precious and are best taken as a whole; the sequencing is absolutely perfect and the song flow seamlessly together. The only track I wouldn’t recommend outright is Fushigi Descartes
, which feels a little less adroit with its hooks and arrangement, but it’s by no means a bad song.
Rather than highlights, then, the ‘interesting’ tracks are the ones on the frontier of the band’s formula. Shinigawa Number
is a bouncier, synth-driven track that nods blithely towards whatever benign cocktail of j-pop and anime was surely behind the inception of Kero Kero Bonito; it’s one of the more upbeat songs and works well in its central placement as a springboard from the album’s first to second half. On the other hand, Vermont Kiss
and the first verse of Shikaku Kakumei
border on dream-pop, embracing atmospheric overtones more openly; Vermont Kiss
stays in this mode and slides into a coda as mesmerising as any top-notch Blue Bell Knoll-era Cocteau Twins number, while Shikaku Kakumei
is perhaps the most complex progression on the album,
This song is also a perfect example of the melodic relationship between Yakushimaru and guitarist Seiichi Nagai: while Yakushimaru’s vocal hooks are simplistic and largely the same with each song’s verse and chorus, Nagai’s guitar work is far busier. He’ll open a song with a distinctive motif but develop or expand upon it at every reiteration, resulting a range of nuanced and highly melodic leads that run throughout the album. He and Yakushimaru have a stupendous chemistry that brings out the best of each other’s performance and instills a perfect balance of foundation and development into each song; the band’s rhythm section is proficient and consistent, but it’s this central pairing that gives all Soutaisei Riron’s work its edge.
The two are also well balanced on their individual merits; while Nagai is a highly talented and innovative guitarist, Yakushimaru is every bit as precious as a vocalist. Her vocal stylings are far and away the the best example I’ve heard of the cutesy, childlike tone that seems to crop up whenever the spheres of Japan and pop come anywhere close to intersecting. While easy comparisons can be made with contemporaries such as Passepied and Izumi Macra, Yakushimaru’s style is never grating and and her voice is probably the only one of its kind that I enjoy without even a shred of irony. This makes Soutaisei Riron an ideal gateway for Japanese indie, as anyone who can get to grips with their relatively pared back sound will find themselves well-equipped to deal with more excessive or saccharine groups.
gets a perfect score because it’s a near-flawless example of its style and a landmark release, but it doesn’t come without a couple of caveats. Firstly, as I suggested, this is an easy listen that gradually reveals its depth rather than inspiring a breathtaking first impression; it’s perfectly fine if heard cursively, but needs a mild amount of time and attention to show its full strength. Secondly, in line with the fay, evasive sensibilities of both the band and their music, the album’s appeal can be a little mercurial. It’s not something to listen to in a hurry or with excess enthusiasm - Soutaisei Riron cater to a listener whose attention is equally passive and active, content to be carried along by their sound but engaged enough to savour its merits. As such, there are some points at which this album absolutely fails to hit the mark, but it rewards patience and the opportune listening disposition so richly that this doesn’t inhibit it all that much.
These caveats hardly constitute actual weaknesses, and Hi-Fi Anatomia
passes as virtually flawless not because of some sense of mindblowing hyperbole, but because its lithe compositions and elegant performances are never off the mark. It’s a hugely worthwhile listen for just about anyone, regardless of their attitude or affinity towards Japanese music, and listening to it a whole decade since its release, it hasn’t aged a day. I don’t know how many people would have described this as a timeless classic back in 2009, but in 2019 it has shown itself to be exactly that with the same graceful subtlety that permeate its every note. Absolutely essential.