Japanese Spirituals

Shugo Tokumaru - L.S.T.This you know—thanks to the Internet, there is nothing indigenous in music anymore. The web has erased national borders and led to different cultures swapping native musics. It’s no longer impossible or even odd—it’s almost commonplace now—for artists to collaborate on albums from different locations without ever meeting in person. The past few years have led to a united globalization of popular music both here in America and abroad. Certainly now more than ever cultures are flirting with each other artistically, in some instances—Brazilian baile meets American hip-hop, for example—even fornicating. It’s at the point where an actual album of Swedish reggae from Stephen Malkmus would no longer be a daring career move. But lost in the slew of talented foreign artists to find acclaim here are two gifts from the Far East, quietly operating on opposite ends of the spectrum, mastering their respective genres in preparation to take over the world.

Shugo Tokumaru is still somewhat a mystery. Numerous attempts to learn about the shadowy figure behind both L.S.T. and Night Piece have all resulted in failure; both his personal and MySpace websites offer little to no biographical information. I attempted to run the “About” section of shugotokumaru.com through a translator and came up a string of accomplishments that were formed in backwards sentences and this ending: “In the future my pace you cannot separate the eye from character and activity and extraordinary music sense.” I’m not sure exactly what that’s supposed to mean, but it sounds magical—and really, it takes but one listen to see through the shroud of mystery and view Tokumaru through his fog of gentle pop music.

The image that comes to mind personally when listening to Tokumaru is the cover photo from Nick Drake’s Bryter Layter. Not to compare the personalities of both, or even their musical stylings—Shugo is far more expansive and pop-oriented, braver than the strictly wistful Drake. In the picture Drake just sits there, head facing downward; you can clearly hear this same inwardness in Tokumaru’s whisper. His delicate melodies, flush with rich orchestration and whimsy, still sound restrained—like somewhere in the mind of this man is an intensity that even the spirituality of his first two albums can’t capture. Shugo focuses on uncomplicated motifs, aerates his exotic instrumentation so it floats on the wind, and takes broad strokes with his brush. His songs are anchored in traditional Wilsonian pop but in depth and texture only—instead of making declarative statements Tokumaru breeds ambience. These songs are intended for mood alone and will, if you are capable of falling backwards into them, make you light-headed and delirious. Artists like Tokumaru are fragile little china dolls on a glass shelf—immediately beautiful, if not unremarkable, yet slowly reveal intricacies and begin to haunt like the most beautiful ghost in the world.

Nujabes, by contrast, is a lot more immediate. Listen to, for instance, the wonderful “Reflection Eternal,” from his second album, Modal Soul, and similar jazz-inflected hip-hop producers like Rjd2 immediately spring to mind. Nujabes differentiates himself by changing the focus of his work. Where American producers fixate themselves on the hard snare hit, Nujabes concerns himself with making the beat smooth, not stiff.

Anime fans, and God knows I don’t count myself among them, might already be aware of Nujabes unconsciously—he’s provided the soundtrack for the Samurai Champloo series. Beyond that, he runs Hyde Out Productions and has released two brilliant albums on his own—the aforementioned Modal Soul and 2002’s Metaphorical Music. His solo albums are mostly instrumental, but Nujabes proves he’s capable of backing a slew of emcees by occasionally bringing in members of CYNE, Apani, and Funky DL (among others) to flow.

Now, before we go any further, it’s understood that jazz and soul mingling with hip-hop is hardly anything new—we’ve seen enough Dusty Fingers to know that. But Nujabes’ production is more textured than a typical beat+bass+scratchy sample track. For example, Modal Soul‘s “New World Rhapsody” remarkably condenses hip-hop, one of his typical mixolydian piano melodies, disco, and soul in a modern electronic context, yet the track bleeds subtle—to find it’s true core, a vocal sample so sewn into the mix you can only make out the last bit of it, a declarative “I love you,” you have to find where one sound ends and another begins and peel them apart one-by-one.

The running theme throughout all of Nujabes’ music is warmth—whether or not the beat decides to make an appearance on a given track (and there are more than a few where the drums leave the rest of the track to its own devices), you can hear a breeze blowing through open microphones. The man just knows how to produce—instead of pushing each fader to its max and letting them fight for control (a popular tactic amongst producers of all sorts nowadays), Nujabes brings depth to the proceedings by emphasizing some instruments more than others—bringing the low end of the piano up front while letting the high keys twinkle low in the mix, for example. People forget that production is another important step in the process. You might not notice it when listening to some of the more homogenized efforts in contemporary music, but the production quality of tracks like “Eclipse” is enough to make even the strictest of vinyl elitists concede that music can sound good digitally as well. Tokumaru and Nujabes have both Americanized themselves musically more than other popular foreign artists, so they aren’t banking on the kitschy trend of their birthplaces to succeed. But don’t get it twisted—in the jumble of Scandinavian indie popsters, German house and techno producers, and Swedish/Argentinean folk singers (here’s looking at you, Jose), these men have it. Forget about ammo from the press releases—listen to the music of Tokumaru and Nujabes and you’ll find a globe absent of boundaries, where the space between Japan and the Pacific Coast can be covered with a 3-minute work of art.

MP3s available on Shugo Tokumaru’s myspace page and on Nujabes’ too.

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