Tuesday, April 10, 2007

The Seven Days of J-POP - Part II : Tomoe Shinohara

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While it may seem unorthodox to have such a disclaimer for a music entry, I feel this one warrants special attention.

If you are the type of music lover that abhors any elements that can, even on occasion, be described as cute, frisky, screechy, girlie, quirky, or fun, then STOP READING NOW! You probably have more important things to do -- like taxes maybe. In fact, don't just stop. Turn around and run. Like, really fast.

OK, so those of you still reading are now forewarned.

One more chance. Are you sure you wish to continue? If you can't take chances, you can stop right now.

OK, then. You definitely cannot claim that I didn't warn you.



SUPER MODEL - (1996)

Super Model was my first J-Pop purchase ever.

It was in early 1997. I was finishing up my final ever radio show stint for KUCI, which was a weekly performance show for mostly difficult/noise artists, local or touring. As an escape from the fun but often black & white sonic assaults, I wanted to dedicate time to listen to something with some hues again. Ambient, drone, and 'post-rock' were the college radio flavors of choice, and all of them had great options for listening, but it was all still this gigantic varying spectrum of grey, grey, and grey. I wanted something that was catchy and saturated to the point of inducing not only eye strain but also music-to-color synesthesia.

~Oye Kooray Kooray, Kooray Kooray TakoraaaaaaaaAAAAAAAAAAA YA YA YA YAAAAAAAY!~

The hell?

Just before setting microphones for another Sunday night radio performance, this incredible song blasted from the DJ booth. The DJ was the J-Pop radio show guy. I went in and was prepared to ask who the artist and title was, but I became rather numbed halfway through:

DJ: "Oh yeah, this is Tomoe Shinohara. This is her debut album, Super Model, playing. It's pretty insane and fun"

ME:"...... CD!...."

DJ:" [um ok]. Yeah, I also just got her last two recent singles which contain remixes of songs from this."

ME:"....... "

DJ: "People are still trying to...."

ME: "FUN!"

DJ: "..er, still trying to 'get' her I guess. I just think it's all good so far, and don't wonder too much about..."


The first thing I did the following Monday on my lunch break was head to the nearby Yaohan Asian megamall to find this CD. The problem is: I only remembered the big yellow ears and pink robber's mask on the CD. I knew I couldn't get anywhere by asking the clerks to find me the CD of the Crazy Girl With The Yellow Mouse Ears And Pink Robber's Mask. Also, this was their first day from post-inventory, so much of the music selection was not alphabetized.

It took me about 45 minutes to go through every CD, but I finally found That CD With The Cover Featuring The Crazy Girl With The Yellow Mouse Ears And Pink Robber's Mask. I purchased it immediately, then later listened to it after work, and played it over and over again, probably freaking out my roommates.

  • Tomoe Shinohara - "Kurukuru Mikaru (album version)" [4:27 / mp3 / 192kbps ] from Super Model - 1996

    From the introductory acceleration of the screaming sample loop stuttering, I knew my $30-something purchase was worth at least something upon playing Track 1. What soon followed was this bouncy sugary pop song made purely out of 80s/90s video game substance. The singer was an unrepentant self-name dropper. She screeched quite often. However, the chorus's hook, among much of the surrounding madness, endeared me to this song greatly.

    Now I know how Brian Eno felt when he first heard Donna Summer's "I Feel Love." However, mine's a complementary revelation. Tomoe's singing is anything but this slow fluent semi-speak that Summer exuded on "I Feel Love."

    A lot of music from 1997 is in a mode that wants to explore viscous textures, but Super Model wants to kick that molasses to the gutter and start this extraterrestrial party right.

    In fact, inside the booklet to this album, there are many crawling earthworms with Hello Kitty heads displayed amongst the lyrics. One begins to wonder why they're there other than just being there. Then, in one such comic panel, a MechaShinohara is seen finding an innocent Hello Kitty worm on the ground, proceeds to wield her giant kawaii-adorned Dough Pin weapon, and -- just after the Be-Kitty-ed earthroom sheds a tear -- smashes the little annelid to death, bloody results and all!

    This is one of many reasons Tomoe Shinohara immediately became a goddess to me.

  • Tomoe Shinohara - "Rainbow Rararu" [5:25 / mp3 / 192kbps] from Super Model - 1996

    This is the masterpiece of the album. Starting with a sweet trip-hop style, the verse and chorus are established. However, without warning, the volume increases and now it's "R-A-I-N-B-O-DOUBLE-U" Time. The synthesized rock jabs sound eerily like those used on Andrew WK's I Get Wet, which was released five years after. However, this lasts for just seconds before the song literally doubles up the tempo and becomes pop surf rock. Soon after, there's a surf guitar bridge that brings back glitchy drill-n-bass percussion over the guitar note sustain. And that's just the beginning of the bridge. Soon after, the song combines all the previous elements into one while accenting the hooks. After all that, the song still finds space to end on a sighing poignant sole guitar strum.

  • Tomoe Shinohara - "Suupaa Moderu (Supermodel)" [0:44 / mp3 / 192kbps] from Super Model - 1996

    While this is just a mid-album interlude, it's enjoyable as a sole track. At this point, I want to give props to Super Model's producer Takkyo Ishino, also known as one-half of Denki Groove. I may not have bothered had it not been for the multi-layered electronic insanity that this album exhibits.

  • Tomoe Shinohara - "Shinohara Tomoe No Kurekuretakora" [4:04 / mp3 / 192kbps] from Super Model - 1996

    This is the track I heard that one day in the KUCI studios which started all of this. The song intro alone, a series of Tomoe's multi-colored-fingernails-on-a-chalkboard "EEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE"'s over a melee of cartoon coil-spring noises, lets loose the album's sole Esquivel-tronica outing. As usual, there's a non-sequitir in the musical bridge, this time being a mariachi band trumpet solo.

    Back to the nature of Tomoe's in-your-face aggravating take on kawaii, I've always wondered if this was her way of rebelling against such an aesthetic, by embracing it and pummeling her neighbors with it as a weapon -- or if she really was content in this universe -- or neither.

    Based on comments from Japanese foreign-exchange student friends of mine at UC Irvine at the time of Tomoe's initial fame, I got the sense that no one took her seriously, even Tomoe herself. "Everyone in Japan finds her annoying. Like she's some big joke" was the most common comment I heard. While being typecast as the "weirdo" while still firmly grounded in Japan's pop culture (an issue I'll be elaborating on later), she managed to "make it" nonetheless. Were most of Tomoe's fans aware of her gratingness and embracing it? Or did they just think she was being ultra-adorable, and just found her enjoyable for that reason alone? Perhaps it's both. They're both good enough reasons for me.

  • Tomoe Shinohara - "I Love You, De Ja Vu" [4:22 / mp3 / 192kbps] from Super Model - 1996

    Even Tomoe relaxes on occasion. "I Love You, De Ja Vu" is just one of two songs off Super Model where she's not bouncing off the walls. This doesn't make the track any less strange. It's the most sparse song on the album, albeit the most sparkling -- never mind that, half the time, the melody phases into dissonance much of the time while Tomoe is eerily whispering "I Love You" over and over again.


"Ultra Relax" - (1997)

"Ultra Relax" may be Tomoe Shinohara's most (in)famous song for two reasons: its use as a second theme to the anime adaptation of the popular manga Kodomo no Omocha in the late 90s...

...and because "Ultra Relax"'s original promo video, using a heavily edited version of the song, has since been uploaded to YouTube, stirring site regulars there constantly in search of and sharing "the wacky."

[Tomoe Shinohara's "Ultra Relax (video edit)" promo video from 1997]

Well then! Where to start. The happy-hardcore techno gallop/banjo loop? Riding on a BOMB in the densely urban skyscape while dressed in Ultra-P.L.U.R., giddily waving an axe into the air? The shuffle with her Westworld percolator robot pals? The pair of pig icons? Tomoe's literally electrifying key change? The subsequent broken breakbeat signaling the plate of tea over Tomoe's happy mouth? And last but not least, "TEXAS!" ?

I rarely pay attention to YouTube comments, but I can empathize with the one comment "my brain is bleeding!" For a 2.5 minute video edit, this one has summed up the sensory experiences of two consecutive days of music videos, if just that. Never mind that the song is just as great and catchy a single as "Kurukuru Miraku"!

Around the time of this single, or perhaps going back to the Super Model era, she appeared on the aforementioned Japanese TV Pop/karaoke program The Yoru Mo Hippare. Luckily, a fan uploaded to YouTube, I'm guessing, her debut appearance on the show...

[Tomoe Shinohara on The Yoru Mo Hippare, performing a Top 10 hit by someone else at the time, followed by a post-performance "interview"]

...now, the "shocked" faces of the other pop stars on this program clipping are poker faces. There's an implied sense of acting that comes with being a music star in Japan, at least around this time -- especially if one is going to be a regular on this specific TV show. However, in the small chance that these stars in the panel with the uncomfortable smiles are truly creeped out, this is one hell of a punk-rock pop moment for Japan. It might not be near the level of Public Image Limited's 1980's "live" appearance on American Bandstand, or Wire's 1987 live performance on The Suzanne Somers Show, but Tomoe's unorthodox exuberance is noteworthy only in that it may have been the show's most entertaining non-musical moment for the sake of derailment.

Nonetheless, it's not long before Tomoe's gift for extending her P.L.U.R. fashion, her squeals, and her twist on kawaii to illogical degrees are co-opted by pop in Japan. She has no imitators, as far as I know. But she does become a frequent guest on many TV shows and commercials in Japan, some lasting years later.

After a while, no matter how odd a gimmick is, it can only go so far. Thankfully, Tomoe Shinohara has other facets of creativity as well as strategic music connections up her sleeve for the album that follows.


Megaphone Speaks - (1998)

No doubt Tomoe brushes shoulders with people from all corners of Japanese pop by this time. And, unsurprisingly, she probably wants her sophomore album to not be "More Of Super Model", all respect to Ishino's production work. 1997 was her year of exorcising any of those impulses, as exemplified by "Ultra Relax", her one-single rock band Shinoland PUNK, and other oddities.

While the result of her 1998 album Megaphone Speaks is not as solid as her debut, there are enough classic moments to justify it as necessary. For better and worse, the "many beautiful producers" (to quote the liner notes), varying from ex Boredoms members to Pizzicato Five members to Shonen Knife, change almost every song. Naturally, some songs work better than others. And she's a calmer, more practiced singer throughout the album. While the calmer aspect plays out similarly for some of the songs, hence making them less exciting, Tomoe's strongest songs yet reside on Megaphone Speaks too.

(Note: while half of the album uses English for song titles, the other half does not, so if the following chosen samples from the album have all English titles, this is purely a coincidence, and not a bias toward songs with English words.)

  • Tomoe Shinohara - "Shopping A->Z" [3:48 / mp3 / 192kbps ] from Megaphone Speaks - 1998 - produced by ya-to-i

    ya-to-i were Seiichi Yamamoto of Boredoms fame, Toru Okada from Moonriders, and Shunji Ito from Salon Kitty. They were a side project for all involved between 1996 and 2001, having released their collection of works from that time period on one album in 2001 called The Essence of Pop-Self. Based on one review (where you have to scroll down to view), the album goes all over the place, stylisticly, but within a relative pop realm.

    I have no idea who approached whom. But the combination of Tomoe Shinohara and ya-to-i has resulted in Tomoe's best work. "Shopping A->Z" -- a cover of Toni Basil's "Shopping From A To Z", really? -- is arguably Tomoe's best song and single. Besides being her last "crazy" single (at least for years), it had the benefit of being more open to musical extension and potential improvisation. In a perfect world, "Shopping A->Z" occupies space on the same tier as The B-52s' "Rock Lobster." "Shopping" is a high energy breakbeat-bassline trip that drives the instructions/cheerleading of Tomoe a la Basil, the drillmaster, where one shops not only in alphabetical order but for specific items in that order. The peak of the song is the bridge where all manners of proper pop or music go out the window. The Shopping Alphabet, declared previously, is repeated over electronic mayhem, before resuming to the bassline/breakbeat pairing.

    This description does not even touch the surface of what makes this song excellent.

  • Tomoe Shinohara - "PURE ATOM BOY" [3:32 / mp3 / 192kbps ] from Megaphone Speaks - 1998 - produced by ya-to-i

    This time, ya-to-i are the writers and performers on this Tomoe track. It begins the album, and is one of the slower songs. However it proves to be the most sublime dream-pop song on Megaphone Speaks. This waltz also showcases Tomoe's improved singing skills. The two calmer songs on her debut album already showcased her ability to sing well enough, but "PURE ATOM BOY" allows her to stretch and show she can be thrown a more complex pop song -- in this case, one that is more spacey and changes keys often -- and rule it. Fans of Goldfrapp or Stereolab would enjoy this.

  • Tomoe Shinohara - "LOVEBANG" [3:47 / mp3 / 192kbps ] from Megaphone Speaks - 1998 - produced by KANAME

    "LOVEBANG" occupies similar drive and instrumentation as "Shopping A->Z", however it's the most accessible track on the album, probably because Tomoe is toning herself down a bit here. However, this track is a highlight, although it may not be as mind-bending as "Shopping A->Z."

  • Tomoe Shinohara - "MICRO BLUE" [4:57 / mp3 / 192kbps ] from Megaphone Speaks - 1998 - produced by Geodezik and Joseph Nothing (Tatsuya Yoshida)

    Geodezik (aka Takahiro Shimojo) is a criticially acclaimed electronic musician who's toured and/or worked with equally acclaimed artists like Jack Dangers and Richard D. James. "MICRO BLUE" is the sweetest track on the album, despite working with artists known for producing darker music. There are just enough strange sounds to bridge the verses and choruses to make "MICRO BLUE" engaging without blemishing the hooks and harmonies. This song is the base of a double vinyl only release called The Other Side Of Megaphone Speaks featuring a large variety of remixes reinterpreting Geodezik's original arrangement.


Dream & Machine - (1999)

Dream & Machine's purpose was to celebrate Tomoe's 20th birthday. It was also released on her birthday as well. Lastly, it's her most overlooked release. Many dismiss Dream & Machine just because it's not "really an album", as it only has nine tracks as opposed to over a dozen. Also, the album is a more solid and stronger take on Megaphone Speaks, as far as being a collection of tracks with varying producers. Some producers from Megaphone produce here again. Other tracks feature new guests. As you'll see below, it's somewhat a surprise Grand Royal never released this album stateside.

  • Tomoe Shinohara - "TOKYO TOWORLD TV" [4:31 / mp3 / 192kbps ] from Dream & Machine - 1999 - produced by Buffalo Daughter

    This album has put Buffalo Daughter high on my "next to explore" list for Japanese groups for their work on this track alone.

    Pre-Y2K tension begins the track, with a robot voice announcing that Tomoe is turning 20 years old, that the new millenium is arriving soon, but "TOMOE WILL SURVIVE". The alarms sound off, and we're in for some sort of musical assault, right? The drum fill begins and it's time to duck for cover. When all is unleashed... surprise! Groovy Plastic Ono Band jam! Tomoe doesn't really sing on this track as much as just say words in random tones over it wondrously. Buffalo Daughter are the stars here, infusing the track with a great beat and inventive guitar work. The sputtering synth noise near the end of the track rules.

  • Tomoe Shinohara - "ALLIGATOR" [3:53 / mp3 / 192kbps ] from Dream & Machine - 1999 - produced by Naoko Yamano (Shonen Knife)

    While there was a Shonen Knife production on the previous album, this is the better example. "Alligator" is synth pop-rock song that brings to mind bands that would incorporate a similar musical formula -- put to dirtier effect, admittedly -- like The Spits or The Cripples. With a youthful Tomoe on vocals, this song is great for fans who miss earlier Shonen Knife.

  • Tomoe Shinohara - "A Funny Feeling" [4:22 / mp3 / 192kbps ] from Dream & Machine - 1999 - produced by ya-to-i

    Reiterating the greatness of the Tomoe/ya-to-i combination, "A Funny Feeling" is the best track on Dream & Machine. The verses are quiet enough, but the song shines when the volume turns up and the divine chorus chimes in. (The backing of the chorus is reminiscent of a song, "White Hour", by another of ya-to-i's Seiichi Yamamoto's bands, Omoide Hatoba) Tomoe's harmonies work incredibly well here. It's too bad Tomoe didn't threaten to form a full band with ya-to-i as a result of this.

    Although it seems ya-to-i have released a song called "Funny Feelin'" on their one retrospective album, including a reprise of same. I have no idea if it's the same tune, or a completely different song from this one with Tomoe. Thanks to this track, I'll be purchasing the ya-to-i release to investigate further.

  • Tomoe Shinohara - "LAST TEEN" [4:22 / mp3 / 192kbps ] from Dream & Machine - 1999 - produced by Yuka Honda (Cibo Matto)

    "Hurry Up! Time's Up! Got to make your mind up!" over and over again gets a bit tiring, but the rest of the song is great. It's stripped down funk in the choruses, with Sean Lennon occasionally hopping in to sing "Hi Hi Doo Doo". The verses are the best, sounding like some sort of teen proto-crunk. The song ends with just the beat alongside video game sound stabs.


Tomoe Shinohara continues on after this album releasing a few singles until 2000 or so. However, she abruptly drops her unique aura of musical adventure and falls into becoming the balladeering female J-Pop artist "she must be", and not this secret parody of the female J-Pop artist and what "she could be." While it's slightly disappointing to me, I respect Tomoe's decision. If I'm not mistaken, I think she gets married and has a kid around this time. Either way, many fans think these latter singles are her best work. Tomoe resumes theater work in the meantime, until...


"* Aso FEVER *" - (2005)

Surprise! Five years later, Tomoe makes a come back. It's her strongest release per track yet! The "* Aso FEVER*" CD-single is a 3-song powerhouse. The quirky, techno pop title track is the sixth theme song for the anime Konjiki no Gash Bell!!. The second track, "& Otsayu &", is a great noisy electronic freestyle excursion that will make you sing the phrase "Shooby Doo Wah Papa Ra Ta Paya!" in public, while the final track is a sign of work to come...

  • Tomoe Shinohara - "* Aso FEVER *" [3:24 / mp3 / 192kbps ] from "* Aso FEVER *" - 2005 - produced by Kagami

    "* Aso Fever *" is her best single since "Shopping A->Z" and "Kurukuru." Imagine if Mouse On Mars were commissioned to write a pop song for an anime soundtrack featuring Tomoe on vocals. Well, here you go. Kagami, the programmer and producer, certainly shows his skills here. The strong synth-bass, beat, and Tomoe's slight return to her squelchy Super Model self reinvigorate the feelings I had when I first discovered her music. Thankfully, she hasn't regressed at all. The energy from that first release has just been given an updated treatment for a now mid-20s Tomoe. Did I say I love this single?

    [Tomoe Shinohara's "* Aso FEVER*" promo video]

  • Tomoe Shinohara - "Stereo Phonics" [4:25 / mp3 / 192kbps ] from "* Aso FEVER *" - 2005 - produced by Kagami

    I never thought that my "I Feel Love" comment would come back to haunt me, but here's Tomoe Shinohara and Kagami tapping into the Giorgio Moroder harness. The techno-disco backing track of "Stereo Phonics" would be just another slab of retro-futurism like any of the thousands of Moroder influenced tracks over the years, if it weren't for Tomoe's singing and self-harmonizing. She does hit those really "cute" high notes like in the past, but they collide and resonate like nothing preceding it, especially during the relatively beatless chorus.

    "Stereo Phonics" fulfills the final-track-of-a-release-being-a-sign-of-the-future-cliché, thankfully.


The latest news is that Tomoe and Kagami have formed their own techno duo called Tokyo Flash!!!. "Stereo Phonics" is the closest precursor to the sound for which Tokyo Flash!!! aim. From the looks of their profile page, they just released or are about to release an album this year called Tokyo Mid Night. I can't say I'm as impressed with the new songs than I am with the "* Aso FEVER *" single a year or two prior, based on the excerpts posted. However, I've learned not to cast final judgement on songs from their profile samples -- especially those on MySpace.

Even if the album isn't excellent, it's nice to know that Tomoe is active again in music, and she's working in a realm of techno, from whence she trailblazed more than a decade ago. I'm hoping she will become huge worldwide, as opposed to having a sparsely distributed cult fanbase consisting of creeps like me!

In any case: Arigatou, Shinorer x 100. :D

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Anonymous Carl said...

Hey mackro, is there any way you could upload whole albums of Tomoe Shinohara? I can't find her albums anywhere, not even on ebay!

9:28 AM  
Blogger mackro said...

Hey Carl!

I don't want to upload the entire albums here just out of principle. "Support the artists", etc.

I just did a quick search on Amazon and there were a couple of titles listed. A few days ago, there were none.

The best thing to do is just search the net for J-Pop outlet sites. I was surprised to find how many resellers on Amazon alone sell used copies of this material for prices less than you'd get a Kinokuniya or Book*Off new -- especially since those latter two stores rarely keep anything older than a year old in the store unless it's a very well established band or artist.

So, I'd start with contacting the folks who resell J-Pop on Amazon. They might be drawing from a greater tap.

I was hoping to search for and provide a small list of these sites in the introduction, but lost time. Sorry. :(

8:41 PM  

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