Indie J-Pop (Part 1)

These four performers on the J-pop scene—Kojima Mayumi, GARNET CROW, ohashi Trio and moumoon—deal in a more sophisticated brand of melodic pop, incorporating jazz, folk and electronic influences.

The playful, quirky jazz-pop of Kojima Mayumi (小島麻由美)

Kojima Mayumi

Kojima Mayumi (小島麻由美) is one of the performers who first got me interested in Japanese music. I was teaching at City University of Hong Kong and had organised a small music sharing club for students and staff members who wanted to try something new. One of the students introduced singer-songwriter’ Kojima Mayumi’s 5th album Ai No Poltergeist Sounds of—an intriguing mix of pop, big-band jazz, Kurt Weill musical numbers, Stray Cats retro-rock, and Japanese folk. On top of that, you get a singer with a voice that blends girlish naïvety with a sultry lounge style. What an insane mix of sounds! Her music helped me realize just how varied the J-pop scene is. Here is the first track on the album, Poltergeist (ポルターガイスト):

Here is a more laid more recent number, the single Arabesque (somewhat similar in style to one of my favourite songs of hers: 赤い帽子.

She has released seven studio albums (the last being in 2006), a live album a couple of compilations and more than a dozen singles. Her song Hatsukoi was used in this amazing Nintendo commercial (shot here in Hong Kong):

Kojima Mayumi Online

The soulful elegance of Garnet Crow

Nana Azuki, Hirohito Furui, Yuri Nakamura, Hitoshi Okamato

When I describe Japanese bands, I often try to think of their Western equivalents. With GARNET  CROW, there don’t seem to be any. The closest I could come up with is a Christine McVie (Fleetwood Mac)-Sade hybrid fronting Crowded House after they’ve all been watching a lot of anime.  That comparison doesn’t do the band justice, but it  might give you and idea of their sound: sophisticated, melodic, classic pop.

GARNET CROW recently celebrated their tenth anniversary. The members, who all have clearly definied roles in song-writing and performance, are Yuri Nakamura (vocals, music composition), Hitoshi Okamoto (guitar), Nana Azuki (keyboards, lyrics) and Hirohito Furui (keyboards, arrangements).

The elegant musical arrangements and Yuri’s deep voice set them apart from other bands. Unlike  many other female singers with deep voices (like Johnette Napolitano of Concrete Blonde, PJ Harvey or Melissa Etheridge), who tend to have husky voices, Yuri’s voice is pure and round. She avoids vocal techniques like glides and runs, makes minimal use of vibrato and sometimes can’t quite keep the pitch from faltering when holding long notes, so she doesn’t give the impression of being a technically amazing singer. However, her singing voice, pure and unadorned, is beautiful and expressive and helps give the band its signature sound.

The band has released eight studio albums, the latest release being Parallel Universe (2010), and two compilations. The albums are solid, full of quality songs all the way through, but without obvious hit singles; in way, Garnet Crow are throwbacks to the album-based adult-oriented rock scene of the seventies.


The Jazzy & Smooth Pop of ohashi Trio

ohashi trio

Ohashi Trio (大橋トリオ) is a project of multi-instrumentalist and composer  Ohashi Yoshinori. The music is a laid-back blend of acoustic pop and jazz with an occasional touch of funk, creating a mellow early-70s sonic vibe accompanied by a Victorian visual aesthetic (courtesy of his ever present top hat and jacket).  I came across this artist via a record store listening booth and immediately snapped up the albums This is Music and A Bird. He has since released another album (I Got Rhythm?) and an album of covers (Fake Book).

Half of his songs are in English and half are in Japanese (with my favourite being the English We’re Waiting); the singles and their accompanying videos, however, usually feature the Japanese-language songs.

More ohashi Trio

The light breeziness of moumoon

Kōsuke Masaki & Yuka

moumoon are  a J-Pop duo with a breezy, upbeat sound. The music, composed and arranged by Kōsuke Masaki, has a gentle pop style that sometimes veers towards guitar-based rock, occasionally flirts with electronica and eighties-style new romanticism and even touches upon reggae in a couple of songs. Yuka, the vocalist and lyricist, has a unique style; she tends to sing in a high, airy slightly nasal voice, though she she sometimes adopts a deeper, rounder timbre. The songs are mainly about love, with English lyrics being used quite frequently.

The name of the band is a portmanteau combining mou (French for soft, or more literally slack) and moon.

moumoon, currently signed with the Avex label, had a minor hit this summer with the catchy, but somewhat repetitive Sunshine Girl. Their latest release, the mini-album, Spark, features the song and includes an English language version. They have released only one full album so far—Moumoon, which is an excellent album filled with beautiful melodies and effective, unobtrusive arrangements.

A wide variety of influences from western pop are bubbling beneath the surface. For example, the last track on the album features a chorus with melody strongly reminiscent of Don’t Look Back in Anger by Oasis while the song Don’t Wanna Be has a chorus that wouldn’t be out of place on an Avril Lavigne album. Personally, I find their rare forays into electronica, like 3 days magic, to be the most interesting. More recently they enjoyed a surge in popularity when their song Hello Shooting Star was using as an ending theme in the anime Assassination Classroom.

moumoon Online

More Articles on Japanese Music

J-Pop Girls and Guitars: Female Singer-songwriters
Girls & guitars: YUI, miwa, & more
J-Rock Mix (Volume 1): Introducing Five Bands
J-Rock 1: the HIATUS, ELLEGARDEN & more
All-girl rock bands from Japan
All-girl bands:  BAND-MAID, Scandal & more
Offbeat & Sophisticated J-Pop
J-Pop: moumoon, ohashiTrio & more

~by longzijun


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