February 2018 albums

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

Beach House 3
-Ty Dolla $ign (Atlantic/Warner)
-SZA (Epic/Sony)
Though he’s been a fixture on the West Coast music scene since 2012 and garnered a few radio-level hits in the meantime, Ty Dolla $ign has maintained a relatively low profile. Some might even say he’s been overly cautious in his approach to the kind of stardom that is his for the taking and which he has yet to actually take. There’s something to this theory in the first song off his new album, in which he contemplates what makes or breaks a star in the business he’s in, and in the most unironic way he explains it simply: hard work. But he doesn’t want you to confuse intensity of purpose with thematic ambition. The songs on Beach House 3 are instantly relatable and only personal in the sense that Ty feels them. He’s more interested in craft than message, but that doesn’t mean the message lacks heft, only that it doesn’t presume drama. Hooks are the overriding consideration and the main appeal of the album, but his particular brand of R&B is built on stories that hold up under scrutiny. Sex for Ty is not something to fret over. He always seems to have nice things to say about his exes, and the loping rhythms and major key melodies convey a relaxed, who-needs-to-be-uptight kind of vibe. Even his naturally coarse timbre feels pleasantly sanded down, probably because he’s often juxtaposed with rappers—Future, Wiz Khalifa, YG—whose sound is even rougher. The cover says it all: jams that leave the bedroom for the beach, where everybody can enjoy themselves without having to worry about intimacy. SZA, a more self-regarding R&B star, has also been leery of the limelight, and Ctrl is actually her major label debut after a string of self-releases that were promising but mytsifying. SZA is entirely self-created, a bedroom R&B producer who sings well and writes even better. Reportedly, it took her so long to release Ctrl because she wanted to get all the personal, dramatic details right. This was going to be an album about romantic reckonings, and for once the lofty ambitions have been achieved in a bigger than expected way. The feeling is even more acute in Japan, since the album is only being released here now, six months after it came out in the U.S. So in a year when it was difficult to listen to any music without wondering how the guys treated the girls and the girls put up with the guys, the album is distinctive in its brand of R&B candor. Focused less on sexual transgression than on emotional insufficiency, she schools her lovers in no uncertain terms, all the while testing her own resolve as both an artist and a human being. Her slithery beats pull you into her embattled imagination, a place where honesty of feeling struggles with the demand to make her intentions clear. Continue reading

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Media Mix, Feb. 11, 2018

Here’s this week’s Media Mix, which is about welfare reform. Though the column was prompted by the Fukushima lawsuit that seems to have spurred the government to address the lack of educational opportunities for young people in families that receive assistance, the general thrust of the proposed reforms is that the government wants to save money. Some will get more in benefits, but the majority will get less. It should be noted that welfare ranks are increasing by the day, mainly among the elderly, so reductions are to be expected, but in many cases it is families with children who will see their income decrease. In particular, single parents—which in Japan means single mothers—will have a tougher time. On a recent posting on Blogos, Chieki Akaishi, the head of Single Mothers Forum, talked about the proposed welfare reductions and their specific effect on single mothers. After the proposals were covered by the media, she started receiving phone calls from single mothers who are worried about having their benefits cut. One was a woman with a sixth grade daughter who used to work full time but had to quit due to health problems. She’s fortunate in that a “relative” has allowed her to live in a house the relative owns, but nobody in her family helps her out financially. She receives the child welfare allowance (jido fuyo teate) and some other benefits, but it only amounts to ¥52,000 a month. She applied for livelihood support (seikatsu hogo) but the city official she talked to told her she would have to get rid of her car first. Formally, cars are allowed for welfare recipients but they have to prove that they only use them for taking children to the doctor and looking for work. The woman lives in a rural area and needs the car for other things that the city office does not deem necessary, such as shopping or driving her daughter to school. There are almost no buses where she lives, but still the city office deems her automobile to be “not essential” to her well-being. Akaishi volunteered to accompany the woman to the city office and help her negotiate in order to keep her car and still get the livelihood support, since she obviously qualifies for it. For some reason, the woman rejected the offer.

The woman’s situation is not that unusual, and for single mothers matters may, in fact, get worse. According to Tokyo Shimbun, as part of the government’s welfare reform the mother-child benefits (boshi kasan, which is mainly for single parent households) will be cut by an average of 20 percent. Also, assistance for children’s public education up to junior high school—money to buy supplies, etc.—will be “adjusted,” meaning specifically that the program will be expanded for high school students but curtailed for pre-school children. Opposition lawmakers have protested that the overall effect of these changes will confound efforts to “reduce childhood poverty” in Japan. It’s as if the government were giving something with one hand and taking something away with the other.

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February 2018 movies

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

The Beguiled
The MeToo movement gives Sofia Coppola’s adaptation of Thomas Cullinen’s novel, previously filmed in 1971 with Clint Eastwood, an extra layer of subtext that actually makes it more interesting. Colin Farrell plays a wounded Union soldier who is found in the woods of Virginia by a student of a nearby boarding school for girls. The headmistress (Nicole Kidman) takes in the enemy soldier and dresses his wounds, allowing him to stay until they heal. In the meantime, the shut-in students and their French teacher (Kirsten Dunst) develop emotional attachments to the soldier that he doesn’t discourage at all. In fact, it his active toying with each young woman’s affections that eventually leads to tragedy. Coppola indulges her well-known penchant of letting production design speak for her characters, but for once the characters seem fully formed, maybe because Coppola didn’t have to make them up. But the suspense isn’t taut enough, and there’s a frustrating lack of emotional detail that no amount of gingham and lace can make up for. (photo: Focus Features LLC) Continue reading

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XTC interview, March 1999

A recent discussion I read online about XTC made me look on the web for an interview I did with Andy Partridge and Colin Moulding in Tokyo in early 1999 after they had just released the first volume of their Apple Venus series. I couldn’t find it so I’m reposting it here for everyone’s edification. It originally appeared in The Japan Times.

Since they don’t tour or make videos, XTC give interviews. Lots of them. Colin Moulding, the group’s soft-spoken bassist reckons he and his partner, guitarist Andy Partridge, have done something like a million since they began promoting their new album, Apple Venus, Vol. 1, last fall.

When I mention that most groups tour to support a new album, Partridge laughs. “That’s an interesting word, ‘support’,” he says. “If it has to be supported, then we’d rather the record company support it.” The comment is interesting, since the band no longer records for a major label, having painfully extricated itself from the clutches of Virgin Records. They recorded Apple Venus themselves and then signed distribution deals with regional labels. We’re sitting in an enormous conference room of one of them, Pony Canyon, which is putting a lot of money and effort behind the record in Japan, where XTC is a cult band of enormous influence. Continue reading

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Woman Rush Hour

In today’s Japan Times there is a feature about the comedy duo Woman Rush Hour, who were all over the media in December because they won the grand prize in a high-profile TV comedy competition. I had planned to write about them for my first Media Mix column of the new year but when I learned a staff writer would be covering the group in depth I held off. This is the incomplete first draft of the column I had in mind. It covers a few points that aren’t in the JT feature, which includes exclusive comments from Yusuke Muramoto, the brains behind the act.  Continue reading

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Media Mix, Jan. 28, 2018

Here’s this week’s Media Mix about a special issue of Aera dedicated to the end of banking. The headline is slightly misleading, since it implies that AI will be the death of the banking industry, and while that’s true to a certain extent, the column mainly talks about the end of banking culture. Banks, or, at least, similarly functioning financial institutions will survive, but probably without the kind of strictly organized human resource structure they have now. In that regard, it’s worth noting that the most visible technological feature of banks, namely ATMs, are also headed for the scrap heap, if the powers-that-be who control banks can have their way. A different article in the Asahi Shimbun series cited in the column says that one of the chief aims of all banks in Japan is to go completely online, thus obviating the need for ATMs, which, despite the fact that they saved banks money by replacing personnel and their attendant costs, are still expensive to manufacture, set up, and maintain. Of course, if 100 percent online banking is to be a reality, then Japan will have to shake its addiction to cash, and, obviously, the appeal of cryptocurrencies is centered on the idea of ridding the world of filthy lucre. Japan is behind the rest of the world in this regard. Credit and debit cards are still more widely accepted in other countries than they are in Japan, and while cards are another financial fixture that will likely be adapted or phased out with the development of AI, they seem like a stage any advanced economy needs to go through first. Personally, I can’t wait to be done with cash.

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Media Mix, Jan. 21, 2018

Here’s this week’s Media Mix, which is about resistance to the solicitation of “volunteers” for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. As stated at the beginning of the piece, the ostensible reason for the all-volunteer character of the staffing plan is to save money, since the volunteers will not be compensated. The once-in-a-lifetime experience of working for the games is thought to be compensation enough, and, for sure, Tokyo is shaping up to be the most expensive Olympics of all time by a large margin. For the most part, the organizers are trying to save money on infrastructure items–streamlining transportation and shifting construction costs to local governments and other participants. As mentioned, the organizing committee’s own budget has not been scrutinized and likely won’t be, which is why Ryu Honma, the freelance journalist who has been most vocal about the unfairness of the volunteer scheme, wants to look at it and how sponsors contribute to it.

Asahi Shimbun (which, for the record, is one of the sponsors) pointed to another area where savings could be made. In a Dec. 23 article, the newspaper talked about accommodations for the members of the International Olympic Committee during the games. As a matter of course, the IOC has demanded 1,600 rooms and suites for 33 nights, all at “4-star or 5-star hotels in Tokyo.” According to IOC rules, it is obligated to pay up to the equivalent of ¥44,000 a night per room for these accommodations, with any difference being covered by the local organizing committee. Luxury hotel rooms and suites in Tokyo cost upwards of ¥100,000 a night, and you can bet that all hotels in the capital will be charging premium prices while the games are going on. Among the “25 items” that the organizers have proposed to “reduce expenditures,” which the IOC is demanding, is to either “lower the grade of hotels” for the IOC, or have the IOC cover its own accommodation expenses. Of the 25 suggestions offered, this was the only one the IOC completely rejected.

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