Review Summary: Splish, splash, relax...ah.
Hi, nice to meet you, let’s skirt the pleasantries and jump straight into a quick(-ish) story: I’m in my parents’ flat as concierge during the Edinburgh Fringe. A twelve-strong student company are staying; they’re my mates, a younger crowd I met at uni before I left. I love them, but I do not love their collective inability to maintain anything vaguely close to a clean or at least responsibly chaotic kitchen or eating environment (the two have sort-of merged into the same thing). My brother and sister are around and have their mates staying; there are eighteen of us in total. Everyone is living on top of each other and kind of enjoying it, but only under a very pronounced understanding that no-one has any personal space and that this can only be okay as long as everyone is equally more-or-less happy constantly encroaching upon what would rightly be everyone else’s space. I come home from my work every day - lighting for various shows, the performance times of which are completely out of sync with the rest of the flat’s daily rhythm - and when I do, I settle into a blind-eye groove of pretending not to see the literal piles of literal rubbish or the even more literal stacks of supermarket bags full of dubiously sorted recycling. Recycling is kind of the elephant in the room. I develop a grudge against it as a proxy to avoid getting irritable with everyone else; it’s been a long time since I was supposed to remember the appropriate days to have the appropriate items collected, and for a while I pretend that the full scope of my frustrations is derived from the fact that I am still
forgetting it. And from the fact that I genuinely do not know how many hours it would take to make the shared living areas not look like a grease encrusted wasteland if anyone tried. I have no money; the company in my flat is too disorganised to cover rent in advance and my shows pay at the end of their runs based on profit split. It’s a rule of thumb that shows tend not to make a profit at the Edinburgh Fringe; this is not something I try to think about. My sister is rightly angry and asks me if I, too, am sick of feeling alienated in our own home. I kind of stare at her like it’s a moot point (it is) and decide I do not have the energy for a confrontation right now. This goes on for a while. An unstated turf war breaks out over forks and mugs; if you claim to have both at any given time, you’re either a liar or a hoarder or worse. I get a pretty bad crush and decide to get the hell over it quickly and responsibly; it’s a drag and burns me out a little, but I’m broadly successful and then, somewhere down the line, I realise that it’s been whole weeks since I discovered any new music. My ears have slipped into a near exclusive diet of Blonde Redhead (for when I need to keep up that cool-eyed arthouse aloofness - it’s not going to fuel itself!) and Oomori Seiko (for when I need the solidarity of someone I don’t know being a furiously creative emotional wreck in a language I barely understand); the two pretty much cancel each other out, but it’s getting a little tiring relying on the same kicks and cold shoulders day-in-day out. It’s the end of another day. I am bleached out and incapable of making decisions for the time being, thank you very much. A friend recommends me an album by a Japanese dream pop duo called Macaroom. I misread his rec and pick the wrong album, going for their most recent one by mistake. It’s called Swimming Classroom
and has a very gentle shade of blue on the cover. Chill. Okay then.
First to bed in my shared room, I turn the [blue] mood lighting on, close my eyes, press play and am very swiftly awakened to the following truths:
- I have completely forgotten how to relax this month.
- I have forgotten how beautiful it is to relax to dreamy music that isn’t made in a cynical or purposefully bleak style (looking at you, Penny Sparkle
- The album's cute colour scheme and floaty, whimsical title are entirely warranted.
- Japanese can be an incredibly gentle and reassuring language even when I’m too tired to try to follow any sense of what’s being said. Childlike monophthongal lilt for the win.
- Understated dream pop with fleeting touches of ASMR is objectively a good idea regardless of how bleached out and/or in need of relaxation the listener is.
- I really hated learning to swim (out of resentment because I was dreadful) but the concept of a swimming classroom still deserves a medal of the highest calibre of kawaii.
Now, this List Of Good and Wholesome Revelations wasn’t exactly life changing, but it was exactly what my life needed in that space and time. And that’s lovely
for me and potentially not hugely helpful for everyone, so let’s take a few steps back for a moment...
--- [retrospective_sequence: over]//[my life: momentarily suspended] ---
...and flesh out a sense of what makes Macaroom…uh, Macaroom.
is a blissful cocktail of dream pop, indie pop and electronic that floats, swoons, nods, and occasionally tiptoes its way through a one hour runtime that can be accurately summarised as a Strong Mood. Its arrangements are sparing and minimal, its hooks simple but gently insistent, its atmosphere cerulean, warm and aqueous, and its textures plentiful and all the more impressive given the aforementioned sparseness of arrangement. The duo is composed of vocalist Emaru and keyboardist Asahi: she croons and trills over the ebb and flow of his keys and gentle skittery beats. It’s a simple pitch for a sound that is never going to set a room on fire but might just tide it over with the perfect sense of collective calm if gauged appropriately; many a group have tried to make it their own, but Macaroom go the extra mile when it comes to subtle aesthetic frills and deliver an impressive level of understated confidence and self-evident nuance. Samples of various natural or found sounds (frequently including flowing water, shock horror) drift in and out of the periphery of various electronic soundscapes, playing off Emaru’s considerable charm and lilt to give the album a very natural sense of textural eclecticism and natural immersiveness.
As such, the bulk of the tracklist flows incredibly fluidly and maintains a considerable standard of quality. If opener Akuma
starts things off in the fashion of a graceful if tentative inhalation, Mizuiro
drops in at around the three-quarter mark as though to let that same breath depart in an unbroken, extended daydream. These tracks bookend a near flawless run of tracks that meanders its way through various permutations of a cohesive, spanning atmosphere. Woo
are absolutely delightful displays of coy, minimalist exuberance, while Congo
opt for a lightly melancholic tone with comparably excellent results. The indisputable highlight, however, comes in the form of Tombi
, a masterfully expansive weave of pulsing synths, lightly distorted bass, driving rhythms and irresistible vocal hooks that plays off as a staggering close approximation of the platonic form of the perfect daydream. While in many senses the ‘busiest’ song on the album in structural and melodic terms (not to mention Emaru’s gorgeously hushed rap in the bridge), Tombi
is so smoothly arranged and paced that its various phases glide into one another without the faintest apparent effort. Having a slightly more direct knockout track on an otherwise atmospheric album is often a wise move, and Tombi
pans out as quite simply one of the best tracks you can expect to hear in this style. And then, at the other end of the (stylistic) spectrum is the sprawling title track, which comes off as a little long winded but nevertheless necessary for an album like this; it’s good to see a song entirely devoted to atmospheric embellishment and texture in the wake of more concise tracks that dabble in that field so successfully. On yet another different note, Naked Lunch
toes (and occasionally oversteps) the line when it comes to vocal modulation but comes off overall as an interesting departure from Emaru’s otherwise largely unembellished style. This track and the abrupt English of The Door Swung Softly
are perhaps the most jarring moments in this stretch of songs, but they’re relatively minor disruptions in an otherwise seamless flow.
On the other hand, the album’s final three tracks are something of a letdown in tone and sequencing. 316
is delicate and pretty in its own right, but its placement after Mizuiro
suggests a gradual perking up that is never quite delivered. It could
have been integrated into an earlier point in the tracklist, but it doesn’t add anything particularly distinctive and is beaten at its own game by other tracks (Lion
). Penultimate track Oriental
plays out as a dreamy interlude, but at this point the album’s structure is unclear and it feels somewhat misplaced. Finally (and this is my real bone to pick), closer everybody wants to go to Taiwan
sets out to end the album on a note of twee whimsy but misses the mark, coming off as slightly crass and altogether out of sync with the rest of the album’s carefully crafted tone. It does get brownie points for the brief collage of hooks from previous tracks that cycles through its final minute, but this feels like too little to late as far as forging a cohesive closing statement is conserved. Anyway, individual flaws aside the problem with these final songs is not so much that they are relatively inessential, as they’re decent enough that this could have been overlooked, but rather that they protract the album’s length to an extent that draws unfortunate attention to some of its earlier excesses retroactively. Little details that would otherwise be charming and innocuous start to seem inconvenient, such as the way the title track takes three and a half minutes to kick into gear, or how Mizuiro essentially carries one simple idea across five and a half minutes. These songs on their own merits should be atemporal and engrossing, but the album as a whole is so protracted that their illusion of timelessness becomes unsustainable and its overall expanse gets dangerously close to tedious territory.
It’s a pity that Swimming Classroom
gets thwarted by its own expanse at the last hurdle, it’s otherwise a hugely refreshing album. This, I think, is especially pertinent to the experience of hearing it from a specifically Western perspective: Japan hardly has a shortage of music rich in swimming pool-flavoured bliss of various shapes and sizes (Spool, early School Food Punishment, . . . . . . . . ., Sakanaction, and pop albums along the lines of Heart Station
and Violet Blaze
), but it’s surprisingly rare that we get a comparable rush of tranquillity from contemporary groups closer to home. From my experience, there’s a tendency for Western dream pop either to envelop itself in aesthetic navel-gazing or to come off as trite and muzak-esque. The latter category falls victim to the style’s obvious disposition for elevator music while the former displays a self-awareness and resistance to the same. You can hardly blame artists for pushing against this; perhaps they’re driven by a desire to avoid a similar appropriation into waiting room-ready background noise to that of trip-hop in the new millennium, or maybe they’re just weary of stepping into coffee shop after coffee shop and hearing Cocteau Twins, Slowdive or Trespassers William played in a way that feels at once situationally perfect and also inconceivably distant from their music’s full atmospheric scope. Just this year, Hatchie’s debut album brought us an ominous demonstration of freshly conceived dream pop whose first and final form might as well have been the coffee shop from the get-go. Consequentially, when groups like Beach House or Mellow Gang bring us richer, more ambiguously textured albums too ostensibly moody to serve as innocuous 'mood music’, they can be partially forgiven for the aura of singularity and self-absorption that so often flits arounds the edges of their work; they are on the right side of an unstated movement of genre conservation.
I could pontificate further on the ins and outs of occidental dream pop, but the shape of things is clear enough: the scene has enough existential misgivings, pretence and commodified plastic for a smartly produced, easily palatable reinvention of the sound from overseas to feel like a breath of fresh air. Maybe I’m just biased because this album gave me a good headspace when I least expected to have one, but something about it gives me a deeply intuitive feeling that this is how dream pop is supposed
to work. Swimming Classroom
boasts the universal appeal of the most commercial brands of the genre, but it also carries a strong enough atmospheric current and understated production pizzazz for its aesthetic weightlessness to seem genuinely artful rather than dispensable or hollow. It avoids many of the shrill, melodramatic overtones that so often turn Western listeners away from domestically accessible Japanese music and lands in a very healthy, unpretentious place that will get along just perfectly with your
mood lighting, repressed stress, sleep schedule and general affinity (or even lack thereof) for intelligently crafted music that just takes that edge of things. Does dream pop need to lose its edge, or should push harder to reclaim it？ Macaroom turn this into a real moot point, and it’s a joy to hear them do so.