Polkadot Stingray
Uchōten


4.0
excellent

Review

by JohnnyoftheWell CONTRIBUTOR (73 Reviews)
April 11th, 2019 | 38 replies


Release Date: 2019 | Tracklist

Review Summary: A powerhouse of alt-rock entertainment and deft genre crossover

Just what exactly is alternative rock, and why does it matter? Despite listening to a wide range of music under the alternative aegis, I often find myself asking this question and, every now and then, attempting to pin down a firm answer. It’s a bit of a rabbit hole; as soon as you attempt to define the genre on paper, it becomes necessary to differentiate it from its sibling genre indie rock, thanks to bewilderingly similar constitution shared by the two (namely: divergence from whatever rock norms might be construed to be). And so, if you want to define one in vaguely precise terms, you have to define the other. This process is quite revealing as to their respective characters, but it’s also thorny; for instance, illustrating their differences with musical examples doesn’t really signify anything beyond formalistic conventions - the alternative sound likes to play off understated musings against grandiose gestures (often within the same song), prefers its verses to be guitar-free and has an extensive scope for studio experimentation and conceptual arcs, while the indie sound is altogether less bound up with production value and dotes over off-beat drum patterns and jangly guitars. So what? This says very little of the substance or artistry of the two styles.

To this end, the more meaningful point of distinction between the two genres is the attitudes posited by both music and performers: artists are associated with detachment and aloofness are far more likely to be placed in the indie camp than alternative. Whether wry and ironic (The National, Modest Mouse), fond of insincere postulation (Arcade Fire, Pixies) or simply shy or evasive (Yo La Tengo, Soutaisei Riron), indie tends to toy with, openly embrace, or simply enshroud itself in distance. Alternative, by contrast, is more open and immediate in its scope and intent, and this is often reflected in the characters of its elder statesmen. For instance, the difference between a larger than life statement made by Billy Corgan and one made by Black Francis is that Corgan, no matter how ridiculous, will always be taken at his word, and this delusional yet sincere manner is reflected in his music, whereas Black Francis’ craft is so oblique and performatively idiosyncratic to begin with that no-one would ever think to take his persona literally. This is at the essence of what the genres really mean: indie has an association with irony and self-awareness that alternative lacks; its performance is multi-faceted, occasionally nuanced and often self-reflexive in a way that alternative’s is not. And so, if forced to differentiate the two within a single sentence, I would say that while indie seems to reflect on, poke fun at, parody and project disaffection with the real world directly, alternative constructs and on occasion escapes into a world of its own, engaging with reality through narrative and allegory or simply standing as face-value music that innovates within the sphere of rock. The caveat here is that, just as easily as indie musicians can be absorbed by their own postulation (Win Butler), alternative musicians can focus so concertedly on their craft that their efforts can seem po-faced and overbearing. Or, for want of a better word, dull. This has become something of a stigma and it makes it somewhat difficult to think of alt-rock as an outright entertaining genre.

Lengthy as it may seem, this tangled scheme of genre identification is key in setting the scene for Polkadot Stingray, a Japanese four-piece in the process of carving out a comfortable niche for themselves both critically and commercially. The distinction made so far between alternative and indie is quite specific to Western rock - Japanese alternative has had a different set of founding figures and an altogether different evolution. However, these preconceptions and definitions of alt-rock are still quite useful here. This is in part because Polkadot Stingray can be comfortably placed as alternative (rather than indie) within Western parameters, as a rock band toying with funk, jazz, pop and hip-hop influences without a smidge of irony. More interestingly however, they challenge the stigmas associated with Western alternative in a way that predisposes their strengths to land squarely and solidly for a Western audience on their second LP Uchōten. Polkadot Stingray are, above all, a fun band: their upbeat sound is very catchy and clearly crafted for widespread enjoyment. However, in covering as much ground as they do here without ever seeming to lean on elements of parody or novelty, they show their combined talents as songwriters and performers whilst soundly refuting the trope of over-serious, stagnant alternative. They are innovative; they are face-value; they are entertaining - having examined the genre so carefully, I hope it is evident how valuable and refreshing this combination of strengths is for those familiar with (and perhaps a little tired of) the Western alternative scene.

Regardless of the genre, the band show an impressive passion and proficiency throughout these tracks; they are prepared to veer off into stylistically wayward directions and see off each of these departures with enough skill and confidence for the results to speak for themselves; Uchōten never once has the sense of being eclectic for its own sake, but it also benefits from the band’s clear sense of excitement in exploring their craft so diversely. This is evident from an early stage; after a safe yet highly danceable opening pairing, the album hits a fearsomely creative streak that runs well over half its total playtime. The listener is treated to (in order): a pop-rock banger more mixolydian than your favourite Pokèmon Centre (Drama / ドラマ); a frantic funk rocker that raises its bpm count to an intimidating degree (Pandora’s Box / パンドラボックス); a chilled out and surprisingly effective hip-hop crossover (Bakemono Rake no Machi / ばけもの*らけの街); a downtempo jazz track as soulful as it is spaced out (Rhythmy / リスミ); an upbeat jive with an exuberant chorus and a well-placed violin feature (The Great Escape / 大脱走); a straightforward rock song that successfully showcases every trick in the alt-rock textbook (Love Calls / ラブコール); and finally an outright pop song, which changes up the arrangement and production but doesn’t feel out of place (7).

This stretch of songs covers a solid half hour and is almost an album unto itself; while the rest of Uchōten isn’t a significant drop in quality, but it does stay within more familiar territory and feels less revelationary than the fantastic mid-section (save for late highlight Secret / ヒミツ, which is a little more intense and makes for a great listen). These closing tracks still have their own innovation and excitement but there’s a slight sense that the album has already peaked on both fronts, and as a result it plays out gracefully rather than finishing on a bang.

Before diving into the album’s shortcomings, it’s worth noting that the whole band do an outstanding job and are entirely above water; their songwriting chops are well matched by their talents and energy as performers. Vocalist/guitarist Shizuku is all over this thing, deploying her impressive command of timbre with great passion and versatility, while guitarist Ejima Harushi is every bit as active and expressive in his melodic fluency and strong rhythmic foundation. The rhythm section have a tough gig here, but they rise to the challenge with both precision and personality. Each musician is very busy throughout every track, but there isn’t a single point on the album they sound overstretched - very impressive given how active and extensive their contributions are called to be!

Unfortunately, I don’t think the same can be said for the typical listener. In spite of its quality, at just short of an hour long Uchōten is quite simply too long for its own good. The band’s approach is certainly successful in its creativity, but its chief strength lies in how palatable and infectious these songs are individually. While I’m greatly appreciative of this album’s scope, it has a strong sense of well-intentioned surplus that somewhat hampers its digestibility - and digestibility is absolutely key to Polkadot Stingray’s fun, unpretentious approach to songwriting. It isn’t a case of quantity over quality, but it does evoke the alternative pitfall of artists focused on their craft to a degree that compromises their entertainment value. Just three or four tracks less (that’s enough for a solid accompanying EP!) and Uchōten would be an easy album to leave on repeat. As it is, it demands just a little too much of its audience and risks leaving them in a slightly oversaturated state of satisfaction where otherwise it might have been a straight-up infatuation. Neither of these is necessarily better or worse than the other, but it still feels as though the album isn’t quite as easy to obsess over as might have been the case.

This is a shame, because it’s evident that Polkadot Stingray are both competent and inspired enough not to bite off more than they can chew on their own terms; they clearly have a lot more to give and I hope they’re enjoying a well-earned victory lap playing these songs live. I’d certainly be very excited to hear anything they come up with in future and will be dipping in and out of Uchōten for a good while yet. It’s an excellent addition to what seems to be an increasingly solid year in J-rock, yet something tells me that with a little focus and refinement, the band could quite easily come up with a smash hit that takes their ideas here to even greater heights.



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user ratings (17)
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Comments:Add a Comment 
JohnnyoftheWell
Contributing Reviewer
April 11th 2019


13634 Comments

Album Rating: 4.0

A lot of instant highlights here (check out the third track as a starter!) but this album takes a while to chew over. One of the best things I've heard this year though, definitely recommended

Digging: Blonde Redhead - 23

9Hammer
April 11th 2019


124 Comments


Good read! I think I'll give this a shot when I can. Seems interesting.

AnimalsAsSummit
April 11th 2019


3827 Comments


that art

Digging: Cambodia - For The Child Who Never Was

9Hammer
April 11th 2019


124 Comments


The cover art sure does "pop", yeah.

FadedSun
April 11th 2019


1911 Comments


Gotta check more from this band. I've liked what I've heard from the random Youtube vids. I have to stop checking comments on Youtube though. Hyperbolic comments over there tend to turn me off on a band that I think sounds pretty decent.

ashcrash9
April 11th 2019


3045 Comments

Album Rating: 3.5

Been hearing good stuff about this band for a while, still haven't dived into a full release of theirs yet. Will peep

JohnnyoftheWell
Contributing Reviewer
April 11th 2019


13634 Comments

Album Rating: 4.0

Haha you kinda have to enjoy the album to enjoy the art - it doesn't work the other way round



And yeah I relate to the hyperbolic comments/turnoff vibe. These tracks are solid enough to hold their own and don't really need any sugary words heaped on top

SteakByrnes
April 11th 2019


14597 Comments


These guys are so fun, gotta check this out

Nice review fren

TheStoebZ
April 11th 2019


85 Comments

Album Rating: 5.0

Absolutely love this band

Uzumaki
April 11th 2019


784 Comments


Good review. I’ll be listening to this as soon as I get my copy in the mail. And I agree it’s been a good year so far for Japanese music, and now The Peggies dropped their new album and The Winking Owl have a release due soon. Life is good right now.

decisions
April 11th 2019


263 Comments


Excited to check this out! Really liked the singles. Great review as well.

Gyromania
April 11th 2019


26848 Comments


you have me intrigued, johnny!

Momentai
April 11th 2019


134 Comments


Your prolific holy moly. I loved everything theyve done so far so im super excited to check this out. I find you alt/indie diatribe works well with the western scene but I feel lines get a little blurry for Japanese groups. Though youve thought it through a lot more clearly and I think making that distinction and working through those thoughts is important!

Hawks
April 11th 2019


69379 Comments


This looks sickkkkk. Gotta jam.

Digging: Remete (AUS) - Into Endless Night

JohnnyoftheWell
Contributing Reviewer
April 11th 2019


13634 Comments

Album Rating: 4.0

Thanks y'all, intrigue away

@Momentai you're completely right - the intro section was aimed at preconceptions of alt rock from a Western perspective, as that will inform most readers attitudes towards this anyway and is worth engaging with, but I'm mindful that the same balance of genres doesn't map onto the Japanese scene the same way. I didn't want to protract that section any more than necessary, but will add a couple of concessionary sentences clarifying that distinction ;]

Divaman
April 11th 2019


3471 Comments


Fascinating and nicely written breakdown on the difference between alternative and indie.

Digging: Kakkmaddafakka - Diplomacy

Momentai
April 11th 2019


134 Comments


@JohnnyoftheWell I think it was a great inclusion! especially for this band that really feels definitive contemporary japanese alt rock. Your reviews continue to impress btw. Def inspiring me to pick back up my ideas! just starting this album and the first track is unbelievably fun WOW.

coachcake
April 11th 2019


4 Comments

Album Rating: 4.5

Great review dude! Love this record so much. The middle run of tracks is just fantastic and really solidifies why I like this record so much. Despite the jump in genres, I don't feel they get too caught up in sounding like something or someone else. It still feels like an exuberant alt rock/indie band just having a good time dabbling.



Plus, they still have a few of the alt rock bangers that made them super popular on youtube, which I still really dig as well. And the title track is just absurdly fun and love it as a closing track.

JohnnyoftheWell
Contributing Reviewer
April 11th 2019


13634 Comments

Album Rating: 4.0

Hehe enjoy pal, it only gets better from there (and also, fix'd!)

Ah hell yeah Coach, thanks for getting me into this! The sequencing and style between that run of tracks holds itself together so well! Need to give their earlier stuff a spin now, the bangers here are so great

nightbringer
April 11th 2019


270 Comments


I enjoyed your discussion about what distinguishes indie from alt rock. You articulated what it is that I find off-putting about much (not all) indie. The aloofness. It just feels "cool" in a way that really irks me, like it's passionless and too hip to be affected by things of real importance. Heart on sleeve earnestness is more my thing. Anyway, will definitely give this album a spin.



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