Shugo Tokumaru

Night Piece

(Music Related; 2004)

By Aaron Newell | 22 October 2007

I e-mailed Shugo to ask for a picture to go on the front page of this week’s update. His reply: “please do not expect too much.”

Not sure if that was humility or annoyance (I’d say the latter, because I asked him for a photo of himself holding a sign that said “Shugo (Hearts)”). But in either case, for all the darkness, mystery, and air of indie-militance that surrounds this Japan-based singer/songwriter, his “image” does not coincide with the sheer beauty, intricacy, levity, and simple playful fun of Night Piece. Here the night isn’t doom and gloom as his shadowed, downturned face suggests. Night Piece takes place under a warm breeze and on a full stomach while the moon melts through the ice cubes in your glass.

“Such a Color” opens with crickets in the background. Footsteps interrupt the initial ukulele plucks as if the performance is shyly taking place in a garden courtyard. A steel-string slide guitar and a harmonica swoop into a “hicks in Hawaii” barbecue luau. The table is thus set for Shugo’s soft tenor. You find for your palate a rich broth of mish-mashed never-heard genres whose complementing tastes make for an intriguing new delicacy. This is the smoky sonic-blend equivalent of your new-favourite “modern cuisine” dish, and though “international flavour” consistently emerges throughout the courses of Night Piece, the whole never bears the bitter aftertaste of the processed-deathtrap genre of “world music.” Each of these pieces is fruit off the same branch, but sliced, sugared, spiced, and seasoned to a unique taste. Night Piece is fine dining for the open-minded indie pop enthusiast.

On “Light Chair” heavy music box plucking (one grade sharper than a Sufjan banjo) conquers the wild noises from beyond the porch. Shugo hesitantly serenades the swamp, but sweetly smoothes the tinkering into a sublime intermission of deft strumming and unfaltering-yet-wavering vocals. He halts his singing (though you don't want him to) and the music box re-enters, growing more complex from its initial juvenile deliberation. The beasts in the swamp continue their croaking and chirping. Another toyish verse precedes a second descent into that beautiful guitar progression tease---this time enhanced with soft, echoing vocals. Shugo hits a revelatory high note alone, and the paper-boat-song floats away.

The deliberately detailed, everything-in-its-right-place-or-else nature of this album is astounding, and it helps the work thrive as much on technical perfection as “mood." On “Lantern on the Water” hymns-ing oohs and ahs are overdubbed fourfold and hover above organic, Books-like electronic pulses. Xylophones twinkle in the backdrop, and layers of distorted cello lightly cake the mix like the richest static-smothered textures from OK Computer (1997). But it's so tightly arranged that you only notice the song's claustrophobia as its elements fade out in rapid succession at its end.

“The Mop” is a porch stomper akin to a more delicate and lush version of The Microphones’ “I Want the Wind to Blow." Shugo angelically harmonizes over a melodica which, in turn, matches the layered guitars note-for-note. Shimmering flourishes put the track to bed on a high note

“Typewriter's" stop-and-go swagger is also right out of Thought for Food (2002), minus any chopping or buzzing. Six-string blues embellishments accentuate the acoustic sway, while Shugo’s vocal timing and delivery are wholly precise but always relaxed and persuasive. The strings squeak as Shugo's little cousin plays ice cream containers in the background. A brief contemplative refrain is cut short with additional sixstring slides, and three finger snaps conclude the piece, leaving you in wonder how Shugo hit that gorgeous note back there.

“Paparazzi” is 1:16 of ragtime robofinger, Shugo’s picking becoming doubly astounding as he wraps up the end of the song with immense stylistic flair. We’re transported directly from Dixieland to a Country Temple as “Funfair” features piping wind instruments and overdubbed static, giving the piece a turn-of-the-19th-century traditional feel---except with some static. We’re lulled towards the repeat button with a delicate ballad featuring more of Shugo’s quaint guitar work and thus conclude our round-the-world pop trip in a record 25 minutes and 15 seconds.

With a run-time under a half-hour, you could fit three Night Pieces onto one CD-R. Go for it. When it’s over you’ll be so sunk into your seat that it will hurt to move, and it’ll save you the trips back to the play button.

Go to the source!: You can find copies of the record at the few sites distributing it, like Insound or: Music Related specializes in bringing the work of interesting Japanese artists to light on this side of the Pacific, check them out if you're interested in this release. And, since there are only 500 copies of the album released (and only about 200 left), you might want to hurry. Besides, the only way this great record will be re-pressed is with your support.

Link to Night Piece mp3 mix: