Media Mix, Jan. 18, 2015

photo01Here’s this week’s Media Mix, which is about the media reaction to NHK’s New Year’s Eve song contest, “Kohaku Uta Gassen.” Part of the article discusses the Southern All Stars’ surprise appearance and the controversy that followed. I didn’t go into detail about leader Keisuke Kuwata’s apology, but it does bear further scrutiny if only because Kuwata is one of the few mainstream pop stars who has displayed anything like an independent personality over the years. Though his music has become redundant since the band’s strong run of albums in the early 80s, Kuwata tried to retain some of the iconoclasm normally associated with the American rock and R&B he grew up with. Unfortunately, much of that image had to do with lyrics that fixated on what the Japanese refer to as “the bottom half,” and thus just sounded off-putting the older he got, but since his presumed remission from esophogeal cancer he’s come out a little more forthrightly against the powers that be. The apology he released last week was less about the antics described in my column and more about his cavalier treatment of the medal he received from the emperor, an honor that he seemed to be making fun of when he displayed it on stage at one of the group’s recent concerts and jokingly tried to auction it off. I hadn’t known about that before the apology and probably would have been impressed if I had: It sounds like a good joke in that it conveyed the singer’s discomfort at being cited by the authorities as some sort of role model. As trite as it may sound, I still think artists who nominally identify themselves as rock and rollers should be automatically suspicious of positive recognition from the so-called establishment. Strictly speaking, it would have been better had Kuwata politely refused the medal, but I suppose that’s beyond the pale for a Japanese public figure of his standing, so joking about it is the next best thing.

Consequently, apologizing for the joke sounds like a betrayal of the values I thought Kuwata was trying to convey, and since he didn’t specifically retract his criticism of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, which he expressed at another concert, I suspect those values still hold. By all appearances he was pressured into writing the apology, likely by his management company, which had been picketed by right wing groups incensed by Kuwata’s actions; and that’s another thing that should be mentioned, because as far as I can tell none of the mainstream media has. Though all the newspapers and TV shows reported Kuwata’s mea culpa in detail, they didn’t say anything about those demonstrations. So while Kuwata’s about-face is disappointing, it fits a narrative about the power of intimidation whose familiarity is even more disappointing.

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Best albums 2014

tumblr_naxgvk3uY31rbwx2xo1_500I think it was a great year for music in general, but since my living circumstances changed radically last February I haven’t been able to listen to new stuff in as dedicated a way as I used to. Much of my more intense listening, in fact, was done on the train while going into Tokyo, which takes about an hour. Since I don’t go in during rush hour and my line isn’t a particularly busy corridor, it’s a relaxing ride and allows me to get into the music without having to worry about whether or not I’m bothering the person next to me. But it is limiting, since I tend to jump from one new release to another without absorbing them as albums, meaning integrated collections that should be heard from start to finish and in order. I know that isn’t the way most people listen to albums any more, but I still believe that most artists who make albums think of them that way when they record and mix them. Consequently, for the past month I’ve been trying to take time to do that for the records I felt partial to, and for the most part my initial feelings were borne out through concentrated attention, except for the first album on my list, which I liked immediately but, since it’s a punk record, I didn’t return to very often, because, well, punk is as generic as a pop genre gets. So it was only when I sat down and listened to Here and Nowhere Else from start to finish, uninterrupted, several times that it made the impression I assume it was supposed to make.

As for the album I listened to the most this year, it’s not on this list, and not because it’s a re-release. As a whole, I don’t think it’s quite as great as a lot of people made it out to be, but it’s still impressive. The Complete Basement Tapes was never something I thought I needed since the original legitimate release was plenty good enough, and I’d always thought that all the other stuff Dylan and the Band did that didn’t get officially released on that album was probably would not be interesting in the long run. What I didn’t really expect was how much of it there was, and how varied it would be. Since it took me close to a month to get through all six discs I only fixed on a handful of previously unfamiliar tracks, which I’ve returned to on occasion, but the rest of it is mostly disposable. Still, I’m glad I have it all, since it came from a time when I was just starting to understand what this kind of music could deliver, and hearing it fresh again after all these years has made me re-evaluate what it was that intrigued me in the first place, namely, the immediacy that Dylan and the Band, separately and together, conveyed in their music; the sense that this is what mattered at that particular moment they were making it. It’s also what I miss about listening to music, the capability of being lost in a song, oblivious to everything else. It’s hard to do at home any more. If only the train ride were longer. Continue reading

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January 2015 albums

Here are the album reviews I wrote for the January issue of EL Magazine, which was distributed in Tokyo on Christmas Day.

maryjblige14ACDC_ROCK or BUST_JKThe London Sessions
-Mary J. Blige (Capitol/Universal)
Rock or Bust
-AC/DC (Sony)
Mary J. Blige is one of the more resilient of the superstar R&B singers who emerged in the 90s, and while she’s never sold as many records as Mariah, her career has been more consistent, commercially and creatively. As with many pop artists, her longevity can be explained partly by the story behind the songs. Blige’s image as an emotionally scarred individual who channels her pain through music has never seemed like a stunt. There is something raw about her albums that touches nerves across the board. The music didn’t always justify that love, however, and her last studio album, My Life II, was inert and forced, the kind of self-satisfied collection that signals an artist’s decline, so The London Sessions is a welcome corrective. It’s not just that Mary is getting jiggy with the R&B zeitgeist, but that she’s retooling what makes her special—her personal urgency—in ways that refresh her music. Hot Brit producers like Disclosure add club beats to her songs, but the first three cuts have more to do with traditional pre-80s soul music, something Mary has only referenced in the past. The singing is also different, less elastic by design, more forceful by need; and wittier. She delivers the almost a cappella jazz number “Therapy” with a wink at her own reputation for dramatic self-regard. And the album’s best track, “My Loving,” written by Mary with producers Sam Romans and Rodney Jerkins, revisits her 90s triumphs but with a harder focus on the dance floor. Never a club diva, Mary sounds ready to take her man out for a night on the town, which is proof enough that she’s back in the game. Also back in the game is Australian hard rock dorks AC/DC, whose co-founder Malcolm Young just retired from the group because he’s suffering from dementia. Such news not only points up the absurdity of a band like this still asserting its right to rock, but makes you wonder how much they really want to rock. As it stands, Young’s brother, Angus, is the only original member left, and he’s said publicly he has no intention of stopping now—or ever, for that matter. So you half expect their new album to simply regurgitate the old forms, and it does—winningly. The record’s own resilience has less to do with production or songwriting or playing than it does with the bullet-proof nature of AC/DC’s m.o., which is “play a simple song simply.” It’s the shortest album they’ve ever released, and the concision adds to the power, bringing out the melodies while pushing back on the excess. The only overbearing song, “Dogs of War,” is finished before you know it, and the rest is candy, meaning too much is probably bad for you. Unlike Mary, AC/DC’s longevity has nothing to do with the Angus brothers’ personalities. It’s all about giving the people what they want, and knowing exactly what that is. Continue reading

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Best movies 2014

190rb394ke5pnjpgHere are the ten best movies that I saw and which were released theatrically in Japan during the 2014 calendar year. I would say it was a better than average year, at least compared to the last several, but I also have to say that, due to my circumstances, I wasn’t able to see as many films as I have in the past. I missed at least one, Under the Skin, that might have ended up on this list, considering how positively it was reviewed by critics I admire. As it happens, due to the same circumstances, I purposely avoided films I was almost certain I wouldn’t like unless there was some work-oriented obligation to see them. Since being a critic requires taking the bad with the good, I will admit that this kind of list is diminished by it, but I’ll also assume I saw a lot more first-run movies this year than the average person. I will also admit, yet again, that I didn’t see nearly as many Japanese films as I should, and those that I did see didn’t make a strong impression. I had thought that if I cut down on my Japanese TV viewing, which I did, despite the fact that I make my living watching Japanese TV, I might regain my appreciation for Japanese movies, since one of the reasons I can’t lose myself in Japanese films is because of the ubiquity of the actors, and not just on TV. But I still can’t think of anything I saw that I found worth mentioning.

The best work of drama I saw all year was Breaking Bad, which is hardly remarkable. Everyone thinks Breaking Bad is wonderful, and they thought so well before I did, since I didn’t start watching the series until September when I subscribed to In form and substance, it was actually only a little better than a good crime thriller. It had many action set pieces that were often less than credible, as well as scenes that seemed shoehorned into the story in order to fulfill certain preordained plot developments. But the characters were unusually vivid and, more to the point, consistent in their behavior and moral trajectories. Moreover, the basic premise of an average guy passing over to the dark side was handled with rare patience and an incredible reserve of imagination. In the end, it was a classical tragedy: a somewhat noble individual falls into a pattern of doom due to a fatal personality flaw, namely pride. The showrunners made sure this theme was maintained at a high level of tension throughout its five seasons and concluded it in a way that was not only highly satisfying (though the shootout was less important than Walter’s final nostalgic stroll through his meth lab) but perfectly calibrated. Granted, filmmakers don’t have the luxury of six years to…wait a minute, Richard Linklater took 12 years to make Boyhood. I guess some of them do have the luxury, if they put their minds to it. Continue reading

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Media Mix, Dec. 28, 2014

The PM talking to NTV anchorman Nobutaka Murao the night of the election

The PM talking to NTV anchorman Nobutaka Murao the night of the election

Here’s this week’s Media Mix, about the media coverage of the recent general election and the prime minister’s often testy relationship with the press. One aspect of this matter that I didn’t mention in the article is Shinzo Abe’s use of social media and the Internet to his advantage. Though the LDP did a fairly good job of intimidating the traditional media, the web is so free-form and elastic that an organization that powerful can say whatever it wants without worry about being questioned. Of course, people are just as free to criticize Abe on the Internet, but those voices tend to recede into the vastness of cyberspace. On the night of the election, after he had made the rounds of all the TV stations wearing a countenance that was much darker than his huge victory seemed to warrant, Abe appeared on the video site Niconico Douga with a big smile saying that the “voices of Niconico Douga users” had made a big impression on him, and that he would “listen to them” intently. It’s difficult to believe every subscriber to the service approved of Abe’s work and offered helpful advice, but it’s one of the luxuries of the medium that you can pick and choose the remarks you want to hear from it. Abe was also more proactive and positive on his Facebook page than he was on the campaign trail. As one political science professor told Asahi Shimbun after the election, practically speaking there are just as many people complaining about the traditional media’s “sense of entitlement” as there are people who thought Abe is out of touch, and this works to the administration’s advantage, too, since it emboldens the LDP leaders to think that they can ignore the mainstream press. In any case, it’s not exactly a new thing. In 1993, the head of the news department of TV Asahi was summoned to the Diet because the government thought the station had violated the principles of neutrality with regard to a recent general election. Since then there still hasn’t been a serious debate on what makes for effective election coverage. The press and the political world will likely just continue to look at each other with suspicion, which is not necessarily a bad thing, except that neither seems to think about what would really benefit the public.

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January 2015 movies

Here are the movie reviews I wrote for the January issue of EL Magazine, which was distributed in Tokyo on Christmas Day.

1111746 – ANNIEAnnie
Though “Tomorrow” is ubiquitous on the cocktail circuit and “It’s the Hard Knock Life” almost equally widespread thanks to Jay-Z’s appropriation, most young people probably don’t know about the long-running comic strip Little Orphan Annie, which came into its own during the Depression. The story of a poor little orphan girl and her dog adopted by a rich industrialist, it was a readymade hit for those trying times, but the creator, Harold Gray, was a staunch conservative and often used the strip to criticize unions and big government. He was even against child labor laws. This legacy was lost when the strip was turned into a hit Broadway musical in 1977, which became the default version of the idea, but the theme has always been irresistible, especially to show biz trooper Will Smith, who came up with the concept for this second theatrical film version as a vehicle for him and his daughter, Willow. Somehow, he opted out but remains the producer (along with Jay-Z), and the finished product has his populist fingerprints all over it. Whatever notions one had of a “black Annie” suggested by the original casting were not realized in the final edit, despite the casting of Quvenzhane Wallis, who played a very poor little girl in Beasts of the Southern Wild and received an Oscar nomination for it, in the title role, and Jamie Foxx as the Daddy Warbucks stand-in, mobile phone mogul Will Stacks. In fact, it says nothing about the widening income gap that characterizes our present economy, even though it’s set in Manhattan and unironically features some of the most expensive real estate in the world. The movie is simply about the charms of an artless eleven-year-old who wants a family no matter what and ends up being adopted by the richest man in New York. Concessions to the times include the replacement of an orphanage with a lower middle class apartment run by the shrewish Miss Hannigan (Cameron Diaz), who supplements a stalled singing career with public welfare payments for all the foster kids she puts up in her cell-like second bedroom. Also, Stacks, a confirmed bachelor, is running for mayor of New York, though he clearly has no charisma, even if his assistant, Grace (Rose Byrne), sees something in him that others don’t besides his ability to generate cash. However, the biggest change is in the songs. Since so many from the original production referenced the situation in 1933, when the story was set, they wouldn’t make sense in 2014, but the material commissioned to replace them, mostly by Sia and Greg Kurstin, are so generically contempo-pop and insistently positive that they make the adopted Jay-Z arrangement of “Hard Knock” sound positively Mahlerian. The whole concept has been reduced to: it’s a drag being poor, so find someone with money. Harold Gray would have approved. Continue reading

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December 2014 albums

Here are the album reviews I wrote for the December issue of EL Magazine, which was distributed in Tokyo last week.

-Taylor Swift (Big Machine/Universal)
Girls With Guitars
As Taylor Swift’s career arc has bent toward pop the requisite show of confidence on her part has manifested as an aggressive sense of entitlement, which is perfectly expressed in the opening cut of her self-proclaimed first “official” pop album. “Welcome to New York” releases her from Nashville’s grip, but unlike other top shelf artists who have practically registered to vote in the Big Apple by dint of song, Swift makes it plain she’s already arrived: the “welcome” is not for herself, but for her listeners. “The lights are so bright,” she exclaims to what sounds to me like a West Coast beat, “but they never blind me.” In other words, she understands everything, and the titular conceit of trying to make this album sound like something that was released the year she was born lends it more conceptual cachet than it warrants, since Max Martin produced most of the album and co-wrote half the cuts, so the concept is basically the state of pop 2014 and, considering the number of units 1989 has shifted in the past month, it’s a concept you can count on. It’s Taylor’s world. We just live in it, and whatever your opinion of her country songs, which to me were as informed by emo as by bluegrass, they conveyed a distinct sensibility, albeit one best appreciated by 16-year-old girls. The dance pop of “Shake It Off” and “How You Get the Girl” speak to a wider base, but even before the album was released Taylor had the widest base of any singer in the world. And while locating Taylor amidst the pummeling beats and towering, glassy arrangements isn’t hard, she doesn’t exert as much presence as she once did, and I’m not sure if her aim in turning into the biggest pop star in the world was to become one with the aural zeitgeist. Nevertheless, she’s nothing if not her own person, and one wonders how much she could have accomplished with her talent in an earlier, less enlightened age. The anthology Girls With Guitars takes an historical anomaly, all-female pop bands who emerged during the great group rush of the 60s, and tries to make it a thesis. It doesn’t work that way, and it shouldn’t—these women deserve better than to be thought of as novelties—but it sure makes for stimulating listening. In truth, very few of these acts qualify as “girls with guitars.” Most are vocal groups whose (male) managers picked their songs and supervised the recordings, but in the spirit of the time they were encouraged to rock out and the results are good enough to make you wish they had shown more initiative on their own; like the 2 of Clubs, a Cincinnati duo who had a minor regional hit in 1966 with a song by Petula Clark that they modified into what could be called the prototype of Midwestern punk. You heard it here first. Continue reading

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