Shugo Tokumaru


(Compare Notes; 2005)

By Aaron Newell | 22 October 2007

Dear Indie Labels like Paw Tracks and K Records,

I’m no business person. is not a company, it’s a bunch of English majors who know they won’t be able to pay off their student loans after graduation, and therefore abuse their “talents” in order to get their addictions satisfied via generous free prescriptions of promotional materials. We’re not really a music-mag so much as a relatively-articulate injection shelter. We will write you up, yeah dude, we’ll get Alexander to draft an operetta based on your CDR, sure man, anything you want, just give it up, that’s right, the hard stuff, that elaborate, exotic pop music. Our fix. Give it up.

And that’s ok, I mean, we all have our carrots right? But the crazy shit, the absolute most craziest shit that I’ve encountered while “writing” for CMG is NOT the multiple offers for “business partnerships” where aspiring mall-punk bands request we “cover” their tour, “write” their press releases, and “sponsor” promotional skateboard competitions (with what, guys, come on now). It’s not that time that five different indie rappers e-mailed in, complaining about/praising a certain review, depending on what side of the % they were on, and thereby quite entertainingly illuminating the dregs of an old beef. It’s not the astounding levels of illiteracy of pissed-off Mars Volta fans, either (not to push those buttons, but Dr. Dr. Seuss yall, or something, ok?). And it’s not even the fact that despite our past oppression-fueled rants about how Annie isn’t as hot as Kylie, but that somehow doesn’t diminish one’s appreciation of her album, we now have a (tolerant, talented) female writer to help guide us away from our Playstation and self-scratching between-review activities. No. While crazy, all of that is not the crazy shit. The crazy shit is that no one in North America has signed Shugo Tokumaru, or commissioned him to produce their pop album, or taken him on tour around the U.S., or hired him to studio session. This actually goes beyond crazy, on into, like, whatever adjective means “Ryan Adams.”

If you listen to L.S.T., dear record label people, you will realize how sucky you obviously are. I may get cut off for this, but whatever; if one of you doesn’t buy or lease this man’s soul, and soon, then I don’t want your maligned business. I will google rapidshare links instead, like normal people. I’m not a prisoner, I can beat this.

By now exactly 499 of you know that Night Piece was concentrated paquets of diverse brilliance. Stopping short of Bob Drake, in under 30 minutes Shugo charmed the listener through a scattergram of electronics, deft guitar work, subtle and gentle vocal tones, and multiply-employed dashes of world folk music done tactfully (soooo the key word when integrating international influences), all on one of the most repeatable albums of 2004. The critics went nuts, the hard-ass rap dudes with blogs ended up extolling mounds of adoration for sweet-singing Tokumaru’s production values, guitar freaks swooned at “Typewriter,” and the album sold 500 copies in the U.S. based on five (albeit gushing) internet reviews. Thereby selling out his American label’s entire pressing of the CD.

Which leads me to critically-marketable Tokumaru trait #1 of 328: the dude is humble pie. He asked me “please don’t expect too much” when I ordered a copy of Night Piece. He later e-mailed with thanks for the review we published, saying something to the effect of: “I am not sure you have the right album – there are many great musicians in the world, I cannot do like them.” His label mailed him about making our top 30 for 2004 and his response was “Is there another album named Night Piece”? Can you not love this guy?

And then, of all things, there’s actual music, too. Shugo should be seen as a foreign counterpart to Jim O’Rourke. At home, he plays guitar in a band called Geller and records solo as a side-project. Some people have taken notice: M Ward, Mirah, Thayondai Braxton, and Jeff Hanson have all toured Japan with Tokumaru. On the other side, we, “the world of pop music,” know little about him. Ingenuous record labels trying to sell unmarketed underground Japanese psychedelic folk pop out of NY apartments have a decided uphill climb, especially when returns on the first 500 don’t allow for a second. Press was scant, press releases, ad space, and general promotion were scanter. The few of us who bought and loved Night Piece collectively got a little scared when our persistence for news revealed a possibility that there’d be no more Shugo happenings on our continent in the foreseeable future.

Which was dumb. I mean, there’s always translator plug-ins and And Tokumaru’s a shocking talent; we should have known that when he disappeared for a year it was to polish L.S.T. into a shimmery, glistening, diamond of an album (serious). Where Night Piece was melodically mature and eloquently arranged, it did sound like a four-track recording. L.S.T. sparkles and chimes with layers of strings and chords, plays like an infinitely-wound pop musicbox, charms childlike with a simple, melodic catchiness, but is so carefully-executed that it rewards the attentive, perceptive ear with multiple layers of depth and production nuance. It’s the type of recording or album that is more-appropriately praised with the words “work” and “achievement” than “recording” or “album.” It’s better.

Catch up: Tokumaru sings in a smooth, back-porch alto, with the reserved, honest tone of someone who doesn’t think anyone is listening. In one of the only English-language interviews available online or otherwise (plug), he alludes that his songs are based on dreams. This might be a little trite, but it makes sense: L.S.T.’s pieces unexpectedly shift direction, surreally building movement upon movement while never approaching Furnace-like levels of schizophrenia. His thing is hypnosis-by-suspense, not nervous-tic-by-anxiety. Each song builds from a singular pretty melody which is then teased apart, lavished with detail, reformed, refrained, and adorned with the cagey use of the over 100 instruments he works with; but the coherence is never distorted, the plot never lost. Folk-pop concertos by a one-man orchestra.

And each piece plays like an imagination escapee. I’m only going to do this once, because every song deserves its own paragraph, and there’s no way I can ask you to sit through ten of these: opener “Mist” sways with layered strings, refrains briefly into a harmonica solo, may have a whiney accordion providing faded atmospherics, may also feature numerous half-full glasses of water and a spoon, nuzzles itself into a mellow stasis under Shugo’s subtle croon, and then cranks out an unforgettable riff on a busted steel-string, which riff is then promptly complemented by stacks of rhythmic percussion, scaled with Shugo singing the melody from the first refrain over added drums, picked mandolin, and ukulele, and then gradually all worked back into the opening strum. And seamlessly, all done by Tokumaru, solo, and all elements equal contributors to an identifiable, overarching “song” structure. Complicated, intelligent, beautiful, and never once sounding like the bloated act of self-indulgent wankery my description may have ineptly led you to think it is. I usually write about rap or indie rock. Those rarely sound as measured, considered, loose, irresistible, and smart as each of the ten songs on this record.

In fact, at the risk of totally defeating my own purpose, the only appropriate recent comparison I can draw is Badly Drawn Boy’s Bewilderbeast --- which, if I may ask you to forget that guy’s entire output after that record, was a brilliantly melodic, meticulously arranged, multifaceted but cohesive baroque pop album that had critics going nuts, Nick Hornby going nutsier than usual, and movie directors jumping over themselves wondering how they could commercialize, dilute, and market Gough’s sound to sell cutesy movies about kids with fucked up eyebrows and sadists for step-dads. And even BDB’s worst work could sell that, so when I say that Shugo Tokumaru’s L.S.T. is a perfect, plaintive psych-pop accompaniment to a cutely-twisted Miyazaki film, I’m suggesting a free-pass into artistic categories far beyond orch-schmaltz and overstyled preciousness. It’s just difficult to match something so inventive and creative with an appropriate critical vocabulary.

Indie labels like Paw Tracks and K Records: wouldn’t you just love to work with an artist that makes asshole internet critics admit to inadequacy? (albeit in a 1400+ word review, but, you know, still). The only real question is whether folks will wait for six months while you guys clue in, when the import is available right now.