August 2016 albums

Here are the album reviews I wrote for the August issue of EL Magazine, which was distributed in Tokyo July 25.

avalanchesaphex16Wildflower
-The Avalanches (Universal)
Cheetah EP
-Aphex Twin (Warp/Beat)
The Avalanches’ first and, until last week, only album has become a legendary recording not so much because of its quality or popularity but because it perfectly encapsulates an era in music that no longer seems relevant. Made up of hundreds of samples that were lovingly assembled into “tracks” that could pass as distinct songs but were best appreciated as one long DJ session, Since I Left You was certainly a bear to create, which probably explains why it took the group sixteen years to produce a followup—in addition to finding and editing the tracks they also had to get permission to use them. Some people complain that you can’t rightfully call the Avalanches musicians because they didn’t play any music, which is a fair charge but beside the point, because if you listen and enjoy, it’s simply a direct extension of the Avalanches’ own experience with these song fragments. They just decided to do something creative with that experience. Wildflower has something more, though: numerous guest vocalists who sing above the samples, as well as added orchestrations, thus giving the album an extra layer of originality. Unlike real DJ sets, the Avalanches aren’t overly concerned with the dance floor—there’s little in the way of break beats or tension-and-release. For the most part they’re into summery pop, and while the tempos change from time to time, there’s not much that could be called dramatic. The hip-hop component, though not overwhelming, is more apparent, and the group seems to have placed special emphasis on contrasting indie pop with rap. As collage music goes it isn’t as adventurous as Since I Left You simply because it’s impossible to be that adventurous when everyone can do this sort of thing without spending a lot of money. So half the enjoyment of Wildflower is in the impression you get: These guys work hard. Richard D. James is one of those DJ/techno artists who tries to make it all seem like not much work; meaning if you like what he does you chalk it up to talent. But having spent more than a decade away from the Aphex Twin moniker and its attendant art-dance music, he seems to have retreated to zero. His latest is a long EP that explores beats and melody in a fairly straightforward way without spoiling the danceability of the tracks. In fact, rather than improvise harmonically, he fiddles with the tempos in small ways to vary their swing and propulsive force. As usual, his track titles are completely functional. Several include the word “Cheetah,” which reportedly is a kind of electronic instrument manufactured in the 80s and 90s and we will assume was used in the making of the album. One could almost call the EP a kind of test record for tech freaks, and PR material includes a lot of jargon. We’ll take their word for it, because simplicity like this can be addicting. Continue reading

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August 2016 movies

Here are the movie reviews I wrote for the August issue of EL Magazine, which was distributed in Tokyo on July 25.

Vodafone Summer Series, Somerset House, London, Britain - 20 Jul 2007Amy
Since the late Amy Winehouse’s career dovetailed with the social media era, her life was thoroughly documented, even before she became famous. Director Asif Kapadia simply edits and arranges the available material into a coherent narrative, and given that Winehouse’s record company funded the project, he was free to use all the music and concert footage he needed. The result, however, is almost too revealing. Though it does an excellent job of proving what an enormous talent Winehouse was, it revels in her self-destructive tendencies even as it explains how those tendencies were enabled by her father, Mitchell, and her husband, Blake Fielder, both of whom exploited her to their own respective advantages. In that regard, the story is almost banal in its predictability, and not just because we already know how it ends. Even if we didn’t, it was obvious as soon as Winehouse hit the big time that she was totally unprepared for stardom, despite her bracing honesty and uncommon understanding of human nature (or maybe because of it?). Through extensive use of public footage, Kapadia shows how the international media exacerbated her phobias, but he hardly needs to press the point as often and intensely as he does here. In fact, Kapadia’s approach might have reaped something more worthwhile had he given even more time to Winehouse’s closest friends, the ones who tried to save her, than to the biz people who loved her but pretty much stood by and watched her self-destruct. Nick Shymansky, who became her manager when he was only 19 and she still finding her voice as a teen, is one of the few witnesses who resided in both camps, and it’s frustrating when his comments fade in the final reel, because he might have shone a light on the film’s most pressing question: Why couldn’t Winehouse, who knew she was in trouble, save herself? The usual psycho-detective stuff is presented, mostly having to do with daddy issues—Mitchell left the family when Amy was young and didn’t come back until she was famous—and her low self-image, manifested even before she became well-known as anorexia nervosa. The movie doesn’t stint on showing Mitchell and Fielder as the jerks they were, but it isn’t really enough. For sure, the movie is fascinating, and the performance clips prove her amazing breadth as a musician, but compared to the new Janis Joplin biodoc, which relates more with less, it feels like a lost opportunity. (photo: Universal Music Operations Ltd.) Continue reading

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Media Mix, July 31, 2016

kyousitu2Here’s this week’s Media Mix about recent moves by the government to make education policy that discourages differences. The ruling Liberal Democratic Party originally came up with the idea to fortify morals education back in 2007, during the first Shinzo Abe administration, after a bullied schoolboy in Otsu committed suicide. The ostensible idea was to teach children the value of a human life, but in a sense the proposed directives are themselves a form of bullying.

The most famous case in this regard was that of Nobuo Doi, the former principal of Mitaka High School in Tokyo. Doi had apparently been a thorn in the side of the education ministry for years. His main violation of protocol was to put directives made by the ministry through the local board of educationn to a vote in the teachers room. The board always told him that he had no right to challenge these directives in any way, but since he was a civil servant they couldn’t fire him. However, 97 percent of public school employees get teaching jobs in the system following retirement, and Doi was blackballed after he left his principal’s position, so he sued the government.

Insistence on neutrality in the form of an enforceable directive is thus a contradiction of the spirit of morals education, part of which is to recognize and accept differences. The example that most of the media used was a teacher who said something in class in relation to the LDP’s controversial security bills that if Japanese SDF personnel are sent to war zones likely some will be killed. That is not an opinion but rather a possible scenario based on observation. However, it was somehow interpreted to be a one-sided reading of the meaning of the law; in other words, a “political” statement. The teacher was reprimanded by the board of education, not the education ministry, because that’s how directives work. You are forced to stay in line through fear.

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Media Mix, July 3, 2016

credit: Robert Gilhooly

credit: Robert Gilhooly

Here’s this week’s Media Mix about recent press coverage of the death penalty. Though I stress that the mainstream media avoids the question of whether or not Japan’s application of capital punishment amounts to retribution, I should point out that there are some newspapers who are at least going beneath the surface facts of a case and trying to understand what happened, both in terms of the crime and the trial. Tokyo Shimbun’s Daisuke Sato has done some good work in reporting how the public “faces” the death penalty, and recently did an in-depth article on one AP reporter in the U.S. who has covered executions in a very intense fashion. (Unfortunately, Tokyo Shimbun has not chosen to make this article available for free on the web.) Miako Ichikawa and Sakura Funazaki interviewed the man convicted in the Ishinomaki case while on death row for Asahi Shimbun and brought out some pertinent details about the case that weren’t covered generally, such as the fact that the trial lasted 8 days and only 30 minutes were devoted to the defendant’s childhood and “social situation.” There was no testimony from experts on his psychological state. Mainichi Shimbun also interviewed the Ishinomaki killer, who has accepted his fate and expressed remorse, though other media haven’t reported it.

And with regard to the basic idea of the column, that the death penalty is nothing more than revenge, a symposium conducted in Japan by representatives of the European Union on Oct. 10, 2013 addresses this idea directly and eloquently. It’s worth watching.

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Media Mix, June 19, 2016

14212426230_49aac41861Here’s this week’s Media Mix about last month’s big ATM heist. At the end of the column I mention a segment about credit card security that aired on NHK’s morning information program “Asaichi.” The segment was one of the few I’ve seen that shows how Japan’s financial institutions are working on this problem, and I got the feeling from the way the reporter was treated that it wasn’t something institutions necessarily want to publicize widely, but in the wake of these sort of robberies it might be a good idea to let people know that they are being protected to a certain extent.

But the message was clear: It’s really up to card users to make sure their money is safe, even if card companies are expanding their surveillance activities. An outside expert explained how hackers advertise stolen card numbers and passwords on so-called black sites where “customers” can buy this information for prices starting at $25.00. The price is higher for cards with higher credit limites, etc. The expert also pointed out that people who use these cards illegally will likely not use them for large purchases, since they will be flagged immediately by either the card company or the card holder and the card will be cancelled. So he recommended to card holders to check their monthly statements carefully for even small amounts that seem unusual. Since most people have lots of items on their statements, they may not check everything closely, especially if the amounts are small.

It’s important to catch these illegal purchases quickly since card companies give you up to 60 days to point them out. After that the card holder has to pay for those purchases. However, NHK also interviewed one card holder who had been hacked and noticed illegal purchases on her statement, and then got the runaround when she called the credit card company. Even when she called the police they said they couldn’t do anything about it, only the credit card company could, since it was the credit card company who they considered the “victim.” Eventually, she cancelled the card and was able to get her money back, but only after she had called the Internet shoppping service that charged her and she spent time going over the purchase. The point is: Keep all your records, including receipts, to make sure the items on your statement are things you really bought, and call the card company immediately when you see something wrong. You may get the runaround, or you may not. Also, always be present when you hand your card to someone in a shop, and make sure they don’t take it away, since they might be copying down the information. A main source of stolen credit card info is sloppy retail security.

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Keiko Horikawa and the forgotten remains of the victims of Hiroshima

President Barack Obama’s speech in Hiroshima in May was lauded as a gesture of great historical significance. The U.S. remains the only country to ever use a nuclear device for the deliberate purpose of killing people, and the conversations about that decision over the years have been one-sided in that the perpetrators of the act and its victims have never discussed it in the presence of each other. If anything, the discussions on one side have avoided the points being raised on the other, since Japan and America have now been allies for 70 years. The U.S. justifies the bombing by saying it saved more lives than it destroyed and won’t even consider the notion that the bombs may not have been necessary to end the war; while Japan has lamented the huge loss of life by blaming war as an abstraction without suggesting that its current defense partner may have committed a crime.

But there was one element of Obama’s speech that deserves attention: The people most directly affected by the bomb, the hibakusha, will soon be gone, and without that link the world is in danger of forgetting the real significance of Hiroshima. This is true not only of the world, but Japan, where many citizens, it seems, know very little about August 6, 1945, despite the fact that the literature about Hiroshima is dense on both sides, and though I don’t have figures to back up this claim, I believe more of what has been written in English has been translated into Japanese than vice versa. At this late date it would seem that anything that could possibly be written about what happened on that day has been written, but when you consider how many people died that day, it’s obvious all the stories have not been conveyed. Japanese antiwar and anti-nuclear activists were genuinely pleased with Obama’s speech, even if he managed to avoid addressing America’s responsibility for all those deaths.

Some said they wished he would read the work of Keiko Horikawa, a journalist who last week won an award from the Japan National Press Club and whose work has focused on Hiroshima. None of her writing, as far as I can tell, has been translated into English, so this wish is hardly actionable, but the point is that Horikawa’s approach to the bombing has been detailed and wide-ranging, and emphasizes the point that each life is precious. She is one of those rare researchers who feels she has to understand a topic fully, in all its ramifications, before she can write a word. Her life’s work is dual: the Hiroshima bombing and Japan’s death penalty, subjects that are somehow connected at their roots. Horikawa’s subject is the value of a human life, whether it is that of a person condemned to death for a crime, or that of an anonymous person killed in a wholesale act of obliteration. She doesn’t judge the act, at least not overtly. She only reminds us that each life has meaning regardless of the way it was taken away.

In a very small attempt to continue this discussion and make Horikawa’s work more generally known in the world, I am here posting an English transcript, translated by my partner, Masako Tsubuku, of a press conference that Horikawa gave in August 2015 at the Japan National Press Club to promote her recently published book about the Hiroshima Memorial (“Genbaku Kuyoto”). In addition to explaining how the task of remembrance will never end, she provides invaluable insight into the work of a freelance journalist in Japan. I apologize for the length, but we think everything she says here is worth hearing. Continue reading

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June 2016 albums

Here are the album reviews I wrote for the June issue of EL Magazine, which was distributed in Tokyo on May 25.

ANOHNI / Hopelessness (jake-sya)(BGJ-4020)Birdy - Beautiful Lies (ALBUM)Hopelessness
-Anohni (Rough Trade/Hostess)
Beautiful Lies
-Birdy (Atlantic/Warner)
In her past pop incarnation as Antony Hegarty, Anohni sang about love in all its variations, and the most indescribable aspect of her voice was the way it conflated ecstasy with despair. Both feelings were somehow recognizably distinct while occurring at the same time. That quality remains in tact on her first album in six years, despite the fact that love, or at least the romantic kind, is less in evidence. One might say that love is everywhere, even in the stories of terror she concocts about the American effect on the planet and its peoples, because she can only engage the victims she describes with love. She has nothing else to offer them. Another change that isn’t as much of a change as it seems is the music: trading the generally acoustic chamber instrumentation for dance-oriented electronic production courtesy of Hudson Mohawke and Oneohtrix Point Never, Anohni seems more out into the world. Even when she was on stage, singing in front of hundreds of people, she felt alone in her craft, but despite the title of her album she reaches out, presumably to listeners who might have avoided her art songs before. Which isn’t to say you’ll hear something like “Drone Bomb Me” in a disco anytime soon, but the booming synths and skittering percussion make tactile what was once only spiritual. The aim is obviously to meet the world on its own terms, because that’s the only way you’re going to change it. And it’s clear Anohni means to provoke disgust and dismay at the way her country looks upon “others.” There’s no more cutting musical commentary on the disappointments of the current administration than “Obama,” and the scalding resentment toward the gender that Anohni once reluctantly called home is perfectly realized in “Violent Men.” More significantly, her despair at the despoilment of the earth is expressed as both a personal insult and a cosmic affront. And there’s more, but Anohni never spreads herself thin, because while emotion may come easy to her, she understands its expression has to be justified. The British singer Birdy (Jasmine van der Bogaerde) doesn’t carry the same sort of weight in her own songs of disappointment, and though it would be easy to pin it on her relative youth, it has more to do with finding easy solutions to musical problems every pop singer her age has to address. Like Lana Del Rey and Lorde, Birdy equates high expression with volume and density, so as her feelings intensify so does the accompaniment. On radio, in isolation, this kind of thing works well, but over the course of a long-player it dissipates any energy that might have accrued had the songs been more varied in style and tone, despite her fondness for simple piano ballads. Kate Bush would probably advise her to lighten up a bit, and she should know. Continue reading

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